Jury duty cost her her job, clerk says

Court worker fired for not going to work during 3-week trial

October 24, 2001|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

Kristen Piscopo says she was fired from her job for performing a civic duty -- serving on a jury.

And she finds that particularly ironic, given that she worked as a court clerk in the same Baltimore County courthouse where she sat as a juror for a three-week trial in September.

Her supervisor, Circuit Court Clerk Suzanne Mensh, fired Piscopo for insubordination earlier this month after she failed to report to work each day after the jury was dismissed, and on days when the jury recessed for the Jewish holidays.

Piscopo, who was paid her salary while on jury duty, acknowledges that she disobeyed orders to return to work. But she says she stayed away because she might have caused a mistrial had she overheard other clerks talking about the case she was judging. The case involved Michael A. Conte, a former Towson University professor who sued the school for dismissing him as director of the RESI economic institute in 1998.

Jurors are routinely admonished by judges not to discuss a case with anyone outside the jury room and not to go near anyone talking about the case when they leave the courtroom.

"It is my duty as a sworn juror to eliminate any potential conflicts of interest," Piscopo, who has worked at the courthouse for 6 1/2 years, wrote in a letter to a supervisor shortly before she was fired. "One such potential conflict of interest is working within close proximity to the courtroom clerk for the trial in which I am a sworn juror."

Mensh declined to comment about the firing, noting that Piscopo has filed a grievance with court administrators. Nancy Tilton, the county jury commissioner, also would not comment.

Piscopo was assigned to work for Circuit Judge John G. Turnbull II. When she wasn't in the judge's courtroom or chambers, she worked on the second floor of the courthouse in a room with clerks for all the judges, including the clerk for Judge Kathleen G. Cox, who presided over the Conte case.

"We talk about all our cases. We talk about the witnesses, we talk about everything you can imagine," Piscopo said during an interview.

Piscopo wrote of her predicament to Cox in a note sent from the jury room.

"I have not, and will not be visiting the second floor until my jury duty has completed. I feel this is a conflict of interest considering where I work and what I do. I will not do anything to cause a mistrial or any reason for an appeal," the note said.

In an interview last week, Cox said that if she and the lawyers in the case "believed there was a potential conflict, [Piscopo] probably would not have been seated as a juror."

Thomas E. Lynch III, a Frederick lawyer and member of the Maryland State Bar Association's Ethics Committee, also suggested that any potential conflicts could have been resolved during the jury selection process. "If someone feels their position as a juror would be compromised by their employment, that issue could have been avoided" in jury selection.

However, Piscopo said she was not told until after she was chosen that she would be required to return to work when the jury finished its work for the day.

In her termination letter to Piscopo, Mensh accused the clerk of violating the office's jury duty policy, which requires an employee to return to work after a jury is dismissed, "time permitting."

Piscopo acknowledges that she disobeyed an order from her supervisor, but says termination was too harsh a punishment.

After her firing, Piscopo filled out a "judiciary exit survey." In answer to the question, "What would you have changed?" she wrote, "Never getting picked for jury duty in the first place."

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