By James Lagomarsino
13th District Judge, Navarro County
Our U.S. and Texas constitutions guarantee each of us a right to trial by jury. In order for the system to work, citizens in the community are summoned to appear as potential jury members. After a trial court qualifies the panel, certain citizens are released due to disqualifications or exemptions. The voir dire process allows the attorneys to ask questions of the panel members their feelings and beliefs on the law whereby some may be released for a variety of legal reasons. And finally, the attorneys have an opportunity to strike a set number of panel members for any reason other than race or gender. At the end of the day, you are left with those individuals who survived the prior stages of jury selection. If a court has enough to satisfy what is mandated by law which in a felony case is 12 jury members, then the case proceeds to the guilt/innocence portion of the trial. On the other hand, if a court is left with less than the amount of jury members necessary, the Court has no other option other than to declare a mistrial and start all over again. It is commonly referred to as a “busted” panel.
I have presided over at least three “busted” panels in my first term as District Judge of the 13th Judicial District. It has become apparent to not only me but others involved in the court system that there are some serious problems with people not responding to summons. For example, the Court summoned 300 individuals for this week’s trial setting. Of those 300 individuals, only 62 appeared. After a long day of hard work by the attorneys and the panel members, I had to declare a mistrial when we only had five jury members left after all others were discharged for legal reasons and strikes. It resulted in an enormous waste of time and money to Navarro County, a delay in justice, and a whole jury week wasted. Not only does it delay the parties who have to delay their case being heard, it has a domino effect on the other parties waiting to have their day in court. It should be noted that the issues that come before my Court are often complicated and emotional. I cannot and do not fault those jury members that are struck for cause as they are honest with the Court and the attorneys in their personal beliefs on many legal issues. With so many panel members struck for cause, it makes it very difficult to actually seat a jury. It is the reason that we have to summon so many people to help overcome the panel members struck.
I attribute several possible reasons on why people fail to respond to jury duty. One reason which does in fact contribute to failing to respond is panel members not getting their summons. The District Clerk has informed me that he routinely receives 50-70 summons which are undeliverable. Obviously, I cannot fault a person for failing to appear when they did not have proper notice. Assuming this is the case, I wonder what happens to those other summoned individuals whose summons is not returned.
Another possible reason for failure to appear is apathy among those summoned. I hope apathy is not a reason for persons failing to appear. However, the summons not returned can only be assumed to have been delivered to their intended recipient but disregarded.
My only other thought is that we live in a narcissistic society consumed with social media, electronic communications, and constant communication about what we are all doing, playing, eating, and drinking. Many have lost touch with reality when it comes to participating and being a part of society. While I do not participate in social media, it is amazing the topics I hear about that are discussed on these sites. For example, it is my understanding that some in this very community have commented on social media about how horrible jury duty was because it took all day. I would hope this would be the exception rather than the norm considering what is at stake in any trial whether it be criminal or civil in nature.
As already stated, the effects of persons not appearing for jury duty are disastrous in my opinion for all involved which includes the litigants, attorneys, the system of justice, and the financial coffers which fund the jury system. The Court spends taxpayer money for a jury panel that ends up not making a jury thus spending limited resources on a case that is not resolved. That case has to be reset again to have another panel summoned at considerable expense. If it is a criminal case and the defendant is incarcerated awaiting trial, the taxpayers continue to have to pay to have the defendant housed. If civil in nature, the litigants and their attorneys have sometimes spent significant amounts of money and resources on preparing for trial. Regardless, the cases awaiting trial are further delayed.
My court receives the various phone calls explaining why a summoned panel member cannot attend. Some of the reasons given are not legitimate nor do they fall within the qualifications and exemptions listed on the summons. For some, “now” is not a good time but “next time” is better. “They are not going to pick me.” “I have a trip planned next week.” “If I don’t work, I don’t get paid.” “But it is so close to Thanksgiving or Christmas.” I understand and sympathize with these excuses to some extent but in the end they are not valid exemptions or disqualifications. I am pretty sure the members of our armed forces do not have the luxury of deciding when is not a good time to be ordered into battle only to have their lives ended by an enemy’s bullet.
The Aquariums of Pyongyang is a book written by Kang Chol-Hwan, a North Korean who was incarcerated by the government in a labor camp for ten years. Basically, he and his family were taken into custody one day and transported to the camp for being suspected of believing contrary to the North Korean government. While the book describes in detail of being detained in deplorable conditions, it was what it did not describe that was just as disturbing. The author did not talk about his family or himself having a jury trial. He did not talk about the right to confront his accuser. He did not talk about the jury deciding guilt/innocence nor the jury being allowed to decided punishment. He did not talk about it because neither he nor his family had a jury trial. There is no jury trial in North Korea.
What are the solutions to the problem? The District Clerk assures me that he is changing to different software to hopefully alleviate some of the undeliverable summons. As far as the apathy and narcissism, it would be my hope that the citizens that do and have appeared for jury duty stress the importance of serving to their family, friends, and neighbors. I would hope that parents and schools stress the importance to their children both at home and at school the importance of jury duty. And finally, the most extreme but possible solution is having the Sheriff’s Department round up those who fail to appear and holding contempt hearings on those who fail to appear where the fine can be anywhere from $100 to $1000 and possible jail time. It is scenario that I am trying to avoid.
In closing, I want to thank on behalf of all the judges in this county the citizens who have appeared and continue to appear when summoned. Not only have you appeared but served with all seriousness and dedication to the jury system. Your work does not go unnoticed and is greatly appreciated. It should also be noted that this problem is not unique to this Court or to Navarro County. In discussions with judges throughout the State of Texas, it is a statewide problem. I hope that we are not so apathetic and narcissistic in our society where a right so precious and guaranteed in our society is no longer important. I remind myself constantly that so many people have given their lives in the name of freedom and so many sacrifice today so that we can all live in freedom. Freedom comes with a cost. Freedom requires all of us to sacrifice for the betterment of all. Freedom asks and demands that you participate in the jury system by responding when summoned. As stated already, we all have the right to a jury trial. However, without jury members, we do not have a jury system and ultimately it will become impossible to have jury trials.