Have you ever received a postcard in the mail with “OFFICIAL JURY SUMMONS” emblazoned across the top? Did you at first groan and then contemplate 20 different ways you might get out of it? If so, you are not alone.
It’s a widespread problem. Counties across the state struggle with low response and participation rates from jury summons. In fact, a study conducted by Texans Against Lawsuit Abuse (TALA) analyzed these rates in 10 Texas counties and the results were discouraging.
With the exception of Cameron County, who reported a more than 70 percent participation rate, most Texas counties didn’t hit the 40 percent mark. And, that includes Travis County. Residents here clocked in at a dismal 30 percent average for jury participation. The study also showed that as many as 80 percent of those summoned for jury service in the Texas counties polled simply failed to show up.
And it’s not just Texas. Similar national research found refusal rate nationwide was greater than 90 percent in some urban areas.
Despite efforts to increase juror participation rates, including implementing an electronic summons system and increase in pay, Texas counties still experience apathy among its residents.
Increases and cuts in juror pay did not seem to have an overall effect on juror participation in the counties surveyed by the TALA study. For instance, Dallas County had consistently stayed at about 20 percent both before and after the juror pay increase, with the increase having little if no effect on juror participation in the county.
And, the arrival of electronic summons and empaneling have not solved the juror no-show crisis either. In some counties, the system helps, but in Hidalgo County, for example, a lower juror response rate was reported in 2010, just after implementation of the new online summons system.
However, the study did show that one thing we all agree on: Our jury system is important. While Texans aren’t participating in jury service, previous voter surveys suggest that nearly 90 percent believe that serving on a jury is an important right and that no-shows hurt our civil justice system. But when people fail to participate, our entire judicial system suffers.
For example, scheduled trials can be delayed due to a lack of available jurors and may lead to a backlog of cases. The fairness of trials may be compromised because not enough jurors are available to be representative of local communities — and those who do show up end up shouldering the majority of the burden by receiving increased or repeated jury summons.
Because plaintiffs, defendants and our communities as a whole all have a vested interest in a fair, impartial justice, it is imperative that every citizen participates. A jury of your peers is only achieved when all citizens answer the call to serve.
It’s important that our state and local leaders continue to explore ways in which we can make our system better.
Which is why this week, members of the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence committee will examine issues related to participation and response rates, the jury wheel data and methods to improve the process.
And last year, Texas legislators passed Jury Appreciation Week to recognize the outstanding and important contributions made by Texans who serve as jurors.
These are steps in the right direction. But history has shown that the problem of low participation rates runs deeper than just pay and convenience.
It’s clear that people’s perception of jury service must change. Rather than a duty that should be shirked, Texans must instead consider it a privilege to participate in a system that places so much power in the hands of its citizens.
Note: This post by Jennifer Harris, spokesperson for TALA, first appeared as an op-ed column in the Austin American-Statesman on May 18, 2016.