Coupons won't cure what ails city jury system

Dan Rodricks

Coupons aren't cure for city juries

September 19, 2004|By DAN RODRICKS

I KNOW HOW to improve the jury system in Baltimore -- junk it. Let's admit failure and move on to something else. Really. It's the grown-up thing to do at this point. The average citizen doesn't want to be bothered, and there are so many people blowing off jury duty that city judges felt they had to come up with "incentives" to motivate more citizens to come downtown for the experience. Here's what the judges came up with:

1. Free soft drink at any of five restaurants near the courthouse (with purchase of a sandwich).

2. Parking for $4 a day.

3. A Juror Appreciation Week at the end of the year.

I hear they're negotiating with Goetze's Candy Co. to give every juror a free Cow Tail, too.

Wow.

Can you say lame?

Free soft drink (with purchase of sandwich) if we come cheerily to courthouse when summoned.

I know he means well, but I have this vision of John Themelis, the judge who oversees city jurors, handing out discount coupons to King's Dominion as we arrive for duty. Render a verdict, and ride the Anaconda all day for free!

But, of course, the offer so far isn't even that good. It's a free soft drink (with purchase of sandwich) if you just do your duty as a citizen of this city, this state, this nation.

How pathetic.

The city needs to call between 800 and 900 jurors a day to ensure that 250 will actually be available for all the potential trials on the Baltimore Circuit Court docket. This city is crawling with shirkers.

We added hundreds of jurors to the pool several years ago, through the voter registration rolls, when the so-called "Motor Voter" law took effect. We've had judges issue warrants for the no-shows, but that doesn't seem to have had much impact.

Judges and court officials are still worried that they can't get enough citizens to participate.

And they do not seem to have the will or resources to order the arrest of all the shirkers out there.

Or to yank their driver's licenses if they fail to appear.

They also do not seem to be willing to do anything innovative to make this work better.

Example: All the questions asked of potential jurors during voir dire -- the information-gathering procedure that can take hours or days -- could be answered well in advance of trials. My last jury summons arrived at least 60 days before the date I was due to show up. That would have been ample time for me to answer all the standard questions you get during voir dire: Have you ever been the victim of a crime? Are you married to a cop? Ever been arrested by one?

I would have been happy to send in a questionnaire, or fill one out online.

That's a modest proposal that would save time and maybe, for many of us, a trip to the courthouse.

Of course, that would require thinking outside the box, technical innovation, the cooperation of the legal community and money.

But the courts are stuck in the old ways -- trying to bring hundreds of men and women to the downtown courthouse to sit through long, eye-glazing procedures in stuffy courtrooms.

No wonder there are no-shows.

I admire the concept of trial by jury. I appreciate its historic roots. It's a beautiful thing.

But, here in the city they call Baltimore, if we've gotten to the point where judges are offering free soft drinks (with purchase of sandwich) to get jurors to come to Calvert Street, then why not scrap the present jury system and go with a professional jury pool?

The judges are professionals. The prosecutors are professionals. The public defenders get paid for what they do. And then there are the defense lawyers: They make money off the criminal justice system, too, and quite a nice living for many of them.

Why not professional jurors? Why not hire a couple hundred men and women to serve the court for one year at a time? Consider it paid community service. And forget the soft drinks.

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