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By August 9, 2014August 12th, 2014No Comments

Via Lubbock-Avalanche Journal

Many are called, but only about one in three Lubbock County citizens actually show up for jury duty.

According to data provided by the Lubbock County District Court, 32 percent of eligible jurors summoned last year appeared in court while 68 percent were no-shows.

The number who fail to appear in Lubbock County has steadily increased since 2009, when 61 percent of those called did not show up for jury duty.

The Avalanche-Journal requested the court data following a study released last month by Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, which found widespread problems with low participation rates throughout the state.

Jennifer Harris, a Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse spokeswoman, said Lubbock’s low turnout rate was not surprising.

“Sadly, this sounds very consistent with the counties that we looked at,” Harris said.

“Our court system simply cannot work if we don’t have jurors showing up to serve. You’re only going to have a strong justice system if everyone participates.”

Texas is one of the few states that is liberal with its juries. A defendant can face a trial of his peers for everything from a speeding ticket to capital murder.

“We all have a duty to live up to the responsibilities and duties of living in a free country,” said Presiding Judge William Sowder, who serves as the administrative judge in the 99th District Court in Lubbock.

“If we don’t do the jury system right, juries will go away and judges will decide everything.”

Running short on jurors

Failure to answer a summons is punishable by a fine of up to $1,000.

But that rarely happens.

“There’s a general sentiment that it’s not worth the cost and effort to go after people who don’t show up,” Sowder said.

“We don’t want their money; we want their service.”

The court has only sent out a handful of fines in the past decade, Sowder said.

After taking off work and showing up only to be told upon arriving that he’s not needed, Jacob Mitchell said he’d rather pay a fine. He’s half expecting he might have to after forgetting to show up for jury duty in June.

“I’d rather pay the fine and get it out of my hair,” said Mitchell, 29.

“The amount of time that it takes and the arrangements that you have to make, it makes it almost not worth it.”

Lindsey Gentry, who recently served on a civil trial, said she noticed the language threatening a fine for those who fail to show up.

“I don’t like to do it, but I’m an American citizen and that’s part of it,” said Gentry, 57.

Worsening trends

Jury service may be a civic duty and the cornerstone of democracy, but turnout has long been a concern in the Lone Star State.

The Texas Legislature has done a number of things through the years to improve juror participation, including raising the exempt age from 65 to 70 years and increasing juror pay from $6 to $40 a day. The Legislature also worked to increase the jury pool when in 1989 it began adding Department of Public Safety information to juror lists.

Today, prospective jurors are selected randomly from a secretary of state list of individuals who are registered to vote, hold a Texas driver’s license or identification card.

But the number of no-shows remains a problem.

In fact, the Lubbock County district clerk has increased the number of mailed juror summonses by nearly 15 percent in the past five years to increase the jury pool.

Sowder said he informally asked several judges last week whether they have consistently had enough jurors to meet demand.

“A couple said it’s been close,” Sowder said.

Getting the right number of jurors to show up is a matter of math.

The typical civil case requires 12 jurors, but the court will need as many as 35 to allow for the six peremptory strikes each side is allowed on top of those a judge may dismiss. A criminal case, which permits 10 cuts from each side, could require as many 60 potential jurors.

District Clerk Barbara Sucsy said she’ll mail out 1,000 jury summonses to get 250 people to show.

“You can’t mandate responsibility,” Sucsy said.

Failure to appear

Lubbock doesn’t have the state’s worst no-show record.

That distinction goes to Montgomery County, where Conroe is the county seat, and 85 percent of the jurors failed to appear, according to the report by Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse.

Dallas County was a close second for the worst record with 81 percent of those summoned failing to show, among the 10 counties that participated.

Cameron County, where Brownsville is the county seat, had the best participation rate with nearly 73 percent of prospective jurors there showing up.

Among the report’s findings:

■ Roughly half of the cities queried had participation rates similar to Lubbock County, of about 32 percent.

■ A juror’s ZIP code can influence participation, with greater response rates found in Harris County among those in more affluent neighborhoods.

■ On average, 42 percent of jurors in the queried counties were eligible to serve. But that number dropped to 27 percent in larger counties.

In Lubbock, the percentage of jurors eligible to serve was 54 percent last year.

“On the whole, I think what we’re seeing is there’s not been a silver bullet to get people to show up and serve,” Harris said.

While in the Legislature, former state senator turned Texas Tech Chancellor Robert Duncan pressed for many of the state’s reforms aimed at boosting juror participation, but he declined to comment for this story.

Realizing the importance of jury service, Gov. Rick Perry declared July to be Juror Appreciation Month, saying in a statement, “The right to a trial by a jury of our peers is a critical part of our justice system.

“Unfortunately, many undervalue that right and shirk responsibility when they are called to jury service.”

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Source: Lubbock County 99th District Court

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