Government

Skipping jury duty? You'll want to reconsider

Punishment not goal, officials say, but now it's allowed

The jury room off of a courtroom at the Wapello County Courthouse in Ottumwa. (File photo/The Gazette)
The jury room off of a courtroom at the Wapello County Courthouse in Ottumwa. (File photo/The Gazette)
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When that white postcard arrives in the mail summoning you to jury duty, think twice before pretending not to see it, tossing it in the trash or blaming the dog for eating it. There are consequences that could cost you money and freedom.

Last January, Iowa court officials enacted a new policy to improve the dependability of jurors and ensure defendants have jurors from a cross section of their community at trial.

With the new policy comes real repercussions. If someone doesn’t show up the first time for jury duty, it still is sort of a free pass and that person just will be rescheduled. But if it happens again, that individual will be ordered to go before a judge and explain why he or she shouldn’t be punished for contempt.

At that point, Iowa judges have the discretion to simply reschedule the jury duty, or find the person in contempt — which can bring a fine and jail time.

“I want to stress the positive,” said Carroll Edmondson, court administrator for the 6th Judicial District, which includes Linn, Johnson, Benton, Jones, Iowa and Tama counties. “We don’t want to punish people. We will work with people. They can call a clerk and ask to be rescheduled if they have a legitimate reason.”

Sixth Judicial District Chief Judge Patrick Grady echoes that.

“We try to be sensitive because we know everybody is making a sacrifice to give up personal time, time at their jobs, and others may be in caretaker roles for spouses and parents. It’s not our goal to punish people,” he said.

But the policy helps all the districts in Iowa have a consistent pattern of enforcement to make it fair, Grady added.

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There previously wasn’t a policy for jury duty, Edmondson said. The courts started using one in January but didn’t start enforcing it until September.

Each year a master jury list is compiled from driver’s licenses, state identification cards and registered voters in each judicial district. When jurors are needed for criminal and civil trials, they are randomly selected from the list by a computer and then postcards are sent out to those chosen for jury duty.

Anybody can ask for a deferral if there is a conflict or legitimate reason for delaying jury duty. The court clerks usually work with people on rescheduling.

The new policy stems from recommendations made in March 2018 by the Iowa Supreme Court Committee on Jury Selection. The committee studied the system and made suggestions to improve it and make it more convenient and easy for potential jurors.

Those locally who didn’t show up for a second time underwent contempt hearings last week in Linn County and last month in Johnson County.

During a hearing in Linn County, a woman who didn’t show up for jury duty July 22 and then again Sept. 16 said she is the mother of seven children — all 12 or younger — and couldn’t take time off from her three jobs. She also said she didn’t feel like she could judge another person because she had been convicted of a misdemeanor in the past.

Grady explained to her that every eligible citizen must serve jury duty. Since she was not convicted of a felony, he said, she was eligible.

“All jurors have similar problems but the defendants have the right to have different people from every background sit on their jury,” Grady said during the hearing. “You could be excused when you show up. The parties may find you have an excuse, but I can’t excuse you. You are as valuable as anyone else.”

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Grady told her he wasn’t going to fine her or make her serve jail time. She likely will be called again in January. He advised her to report this time if summoned.

In two Johnson County hearings, one man didn’t have a stable address, so he didn’t receive the court’s notice and the judge didn’t find him in contempt. A woman also wasn’t punished because she didn’t speak enough English to serve on a jury.

Two others in Linn, who were ordered for hearings, didn’t show up because the clerks’ office discovered they no longer live in the county, Grady said. The new policy will be helpful to eliminate those not eligible, he added.

Edmondson said there are acceptable excuses that would disqualify individuals from serving, such as: not being a resident of the county; not being a U.S. citizen; being under 18; not being able to communicate in English; having a mental or physical disability that would affect ability to serve; and already previously serving within the past two years.

Residents are up for two-year terms, but once they are called within that term they are released, Edmondson said. Even if an individual reports for duty but is not selected for a jury, the obligation is fulfilled, he said.

Ken Gard, Linn County jury manager, said the new system has made a difference — especially text message and email reminders sent to the prospective jurors. Many times in the past, people would forget after receiving the initial summons.

During three trials in September, 121 out of 129, 26 out of 29 and 72 of 75 showed up for duty. On Oct. 14, all 50 reported.

Before, about 92 percent of those called would show, he said.

Sixth District Judge Mary Chicchelly said that, based on her experience, some people have preconceived notions about not wanting to be on a jury. But after they serve, she never hears complaints. The jurors are often fascinated by the process or the case.

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“Some really like the social aspect of it and make some lasting friendships with the other jurors,” Chicchelly said. “They enjoy learning about the court system and find it rewarding. When they find out they can’t serve again for two years, some have said they would come back next week. The ones who aren’t selected feel badly about not getting to stay.”

Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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