Have you been called to serve jury duty lately? Did you heed your summons and perform your civil duty? In many areas, if your jury summons got lost in the mail, was eaten by the dog, or simply forgotten, there’s a good chance no consequence will come from your lapse. In some Texas counties, however, this is changing. This week, Texas Lawyer reported that Dallas County is changing its tune when it comes to no-show jurors. Dallas County began a Jury Services Court pilot program in response to jury turnout rates as low as 20%. Jurors who don’t respond to their jury summons may be sent a notice summoning them to Jury Services Court, which is presided over by Judge Gena Slaughter of the 191st District Court. Once they appear, the jurors may explain their absence, and reschedule their date for jury service. If jurors do not appear on the rescheduled date, a show cause contempt order is issued, and if not responded to, a warrant may be issued for their arrest and fines may be imposed. Texas Government Code § 62.0141 governs the penalty for failure to answer a jury summons, which punishes both non-compliance with a summons or the provision of false information to be excused from jury service with fines up to $1,000.
The Dallas County program is modeled after El Paso County’s Jury Duty Court that began operations in 2005. During the 2010 fiscal year, the El Paso County District Clerk collected more than $300,000 in jury contempt fees and fines, largely due to professionals like doctors and lawyers who choose to pay the maximum fine to avoid jury duty, according to a Dallas Morning News report. The El Paso program has led to a jury yield of 80%, according to Dallas County Jury Services Manager, M. Anne Brabham.
Despite these enforcement mechanisms, a primary reason that potential jurors do not respond to summonses is the financial sacrifice jury service can entail. Texas law does not require employers to pay employees taking off work to perform jury duty, and a study in 2000 provided evidence that poor compensation is a significant factor in non-participation in jury service (See, Ted M. Eades, Revisiting the Jury System in Texas: A Study of the Jury Pool in Dallas County, 54 SMU L. Rev. 1813, 1826 (2001)). The study found that financial reasons for non-participation had a disparate impact on racial minorities, especially Hispanic Americans. Though some counties, like Dallas, have raised jury pay to $40 per day, most Texas counties have not.
The effect of non-participation can have more than personal consequences; in the aggregate it contributes to the erosion of one of our most valuable freedoms as citizens. The Sixth Amendment requires jury venires to reflect representative cross sections of the community and a 20% participation rate is unlikely to provide such representation. Continued low public participation rates may lead to constitutional challenges, even without evidence of intentional discrimination. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers, the right to a jury trial is a “valuable safeguard to liberty,” and essential to a free and democratic society. Whether jury participation is increased by stronger enforcement mechanisms, increased compensation, or more efforts to educate about the importance of juries, it is essential that Texas courts continue to work towards improving participation rates.