Jury Duty: It’s a lottery, but is it fair?

Like so many of my fellow citizens in Santa Barbara, I was called to serve again on a jury. It was just about a year from the last time I was called. With three offices and a busy schedule, I wondered how much time would be carved out of my life. If selected, would it be a short trial or could I hit the max – a murder trial requiring an interpreter?

The clerk of the court called my name to be jury member number 12. From this point, all the final jury members were interrogated by both the plaintiff’s attorney and by the public defender. It was a battery and abuse case, considered a misdemeanor. The questions revolved around the issue of spousal abuse and whether any of the jurors had experience with this issue personally, in their families or with immediate friends. Several jurors were dismissed and the selection process was continued to the next day. I was lightly questioned and was certain I was there for the duration of the trial.

I called my son, an attorney, that night. “Tim” I said, “ I want to petition the judge to be excused on the grounds I was unfairly chosen.”

“ Forget it Dad,” he said. “Jury duty is very important in a democratic society. That is why soldiers are dying in Iraq. To preserve our freedoms.”

The next day, I took my seat as juror number 12. The attorneys once again were given the opportunity to dismiss any juror. Out of the blue, the defense attorney asked to dismiss Mr. McGinity. I was free for another year. But the issue of fairness still bothered me. One juror had told the judge she had not been called in thirty years. Another potential juror related to me that she had not been called in five years; another, seven years. I also know two business acquaintances who have never been called. In Los Angeles, potential jurors are called every 18 to 24 months.

If I looked at the jury selection system a little deeper, it was obvious I needed more statistics. How many potential jurors are in the source lists from registered voters and Department of Motor Vehicles list of licensed drivers? How many from these lists are called each year and how many just don’t respond? How many actually end up on a jury? To get the answer to these questions, I wrote to the Jury Commissioner. No answer. I wrote again a month later, citing the right to public access. I did receive a return letter from an attorney citing exemption from the provisions of the act.

The jury system is, as my son stated, important to our democratic lives in America. But because of the cost to the selected juror it must be as fair as we can make it. We should start by making sure every eligible citizen is called. And we should pursue ways we can reduce the number called in to pick a jury. I believe the Jury Commissioner owes us some answers. I’m available to do my duty, but make it fair.