Movies a plus, but jurors still get only measly $10

October 11, 1997|By GREGORY KANE

There's good news and bad news if you happen to find yourself pulling jury duty in Baltimore.

The good news is that the jury commissioner's office has done its gosh-darnedest to make the experience less -- how should I put this -- nettlesome than in previous years. Those of you who have served since the city's one-day or one-trial system went into effect in 1982 know what I'm talking about.

First, we were sort of herded into a courtroom where we had to listen to a mess of platitudes about how jury duty was our obligation. Then we had to look at a short informational film. Then we were taken to another room to get paid the $10 expense money and yet a third room -- the jury assembly area -- where we would sit around waiting to be called to a courtroom needing jurors.

For those of us addicted to reading, the wait in the assembly room posed no problem. We would just bring along our favorite book, newspaper or magazine and dig in. But someone came up with the bright idea to install televisions in the assembly room. Now jurors are treated to movies while they wait. They are paid in the same room, and that informational film shown in a different room 15 years ago is now shown on videotape in the assembly room.

Now the bad news. Jurors in Baltimore are still paid the same expense money they were paid in 1982. Mind you, the price of nearly everything -- bus fare, cab fare, meals at restaurants near the courthouse -- has gone up since then. Everything's gone up, except that expense money.

"I hope you write about that," a woman said to me as we left for the day. She was clearly as perplexed as I was about why the expense money paid to city jurors remains stuck at $10. Jurors in Anne Arundel county get $15, as they do in Baltimore and Carroll counties. Jurors in Harford County get $20, while Howard County gives its jurors $10 and an extra $10 if they stay past 1 p.m. So Baltimore jurors have the dubious distinction of being the least remunerated in the metropolitan area.

Marilyn L. Tokarski, the jury commissioner for the city, said Baltimore jurors are lucky to get the $10.

"Baltimore City's broke," she said yesterday. "There was talk a while back of doing away with the 10 bucks. Counties give the extra money for parking. In Baltimore, the understanding is that everyone can get to the courthouse on a bus line, so the extra money for parking isn't needed." Tokarski was opposed to the city not paying jurors at all, saying some actually need the $10 to get to and from the courthouse.

But Baltimore residents are long used to the notion that life isn't fair, especially if you're a juror. I talked to another woman who, like me, was a veteran juror -- meaning we get called back on a regular basis, like once every two years. That may not sound frequent, but consider there are people in Baltimore who have never served a day as a juror in their adult lives. The woman and I talked about people we know personally who haven't served. Not only have they not served, they actually BEGIN ITALICS brag END ITALICS about not having served.

Here's how bad it is: I got a summons back in August. I ignored it, figuring it had to be some kind of cruel joke. Why didn't the jury commissioner nail some of those folks who haven't served, I wondered. I got another summons to appear Thursday. Once again, folks who I know personally who've never served jury duty were overlooked. Tokarski explained why.

Merging the files from voter registration and the Motor Vehicle Administration added another 140,000 names to the potential juror pool, Tokarski said. But after those not qualified -- noncitizens, the disabled, those with criminal records -- are excluded, the number dwindled to 80,000 to 90,000. Those people were sent qualification cards to fill out. Not surprisingly, some folks didn't respond. The ones who did must have their data entered in a computer. It's a slow, arduous process, Tokarski said.

There's one final bit of bad news: The jury commissioner's office insists on asking jurors their occupations and work numbers. Tokarski said that information is required by Maryland's Annotated Code. In other words, those characters in Annapolis enacted a law that calls for an unwarranted government intrusion into the jurors' private lives. What business is it of the state of Maryland what jurors do for a living? That's information that should be given on a need-to-know basis only. And the state of Maryland doesn't need to know.

But those Baltimore residents who have yet to serve jury duty need to know they are shirking their duty.

"None of us really know from one day to the next when we might be in a situation where we might need a jury," Tokarski reminded us.

The worst you might get from Baltimore's new and improved jury duty system is a day spent watching movies. How bad can that be?

Pub Date: 10/11/97

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