Jury monitor is out, doesn't take messages

April 29, 2008

THE PROBLEM -- No one answers the phone number that potential jurors are supposed to call to postpone their jury service.

THE BACKSTORY --Corita Stull and Tony DeFranco both say they want to carry out their jury duty.

But Stull is still nursing her youngest son, and she tried but failed to get child care for April 9, the date of her summons. DeFranco is a third-year University of Baltimore law student and his summons was for April 22, right in the middle of his study period before exams.

The notices they received state that potential jurors who need to postpone service should return the form within five days with a reason and documentation. But the form only gave two reasons to be excused -- being "age 70 or over" or being a "non-city resident" -- and didn't address reasons for postponement.

"The way it's worded, I didn't understand you could send it back if you had a regular reason not to serve," Stull said.

Both tried calling the phone number listed on their jury summons, but it was busy most times. When they did get through to the jury commissioner's office, the phone message directed them to press "7" for postponements. However, the next message always stated that no operator was available and bounced them back to the original message.

"I would call them several times a day five days a week for over two weeks, but I couldn't get through," DeFranco said. "People should know how unresponsive this whole process is."

Stull eventually faxed in a letter explaining her situation but never heard from anyone to confirm that her request to postpone had been accepted.

The Northwest Baltimore resident finally called the court's administrative offices out of frustration and was given a number that turned out to be the judges' line into the jury room. The person who answered there said it wasn't her job to check but was able to look at Stull's record in the database and confirm that she had been excused as a nursing mother.

That was Monday, April 7. "I'm pretty conscientious and law-abiding and of course didn't want to get into any hot water," she said.

Again, even though jury duty is an often derided part of citizen responsibility, both Stull, 33, and DeFranco, 28, wanted to serve. "It wasn't like I was trying to game the system or shirk my responsibility," said DeFranco, of Federal Hill. "I wanted to get it postponed."

According to the recorded message, jury duty can be rescheduled within 45 days of a request, as long as it is within the same calendar year. Potential jurors can postpone their service only twice during one year, according to the information on the voice mail.

Jury Commissioner Nancy Dennis and Circuit Court Judge Robert B. Kershaw, who oversees the jury pool, acknowledge the problem and say they are working to address it. However, limited staffing restricts their ability to answer the lines.

The same personnel who process jurors -- calling them to different courtrooms and paying them for service -- answer the phones, Dennis said.

They are in the process of installing software to monitor the number of people in queues and their wait times, she said. "We just need enough people to answer those lines," Dennis said.

In the meantime, jurors can either mail or fax a request to postpone, she said. The fax number is not printed on the juror summons, but according to the Circuit Court's Web site, it is 410-333-0057.

And send the notice as soon as possible -- within five days of receiving the summons -- so the courts have enough time to summon additional people, if necessary, to ensure they have enough jurors for that day, Dennis and Kershaw said.

But they would not say what would be considered a valid reason to postpone jury service out of fear that they would be giving people ideas of what would be successful.

"The Constitution doesn't guarantee equal access to postponements. It guarantees the right for trial by jury," Kershaw said.

About 65,000 city residents showed up for jury service last year. But that number should be twice as high.

Every day, 999 summons are sent out; on average, more than 800 remain on the list after the processing of postponements and excuses for those older than 70 or who have moved out of the city, Dennis said. But only about 400 people show up to serve daily.

If more of those no-shows came in, everyone would be called less frequently, they said.

"When people receive a summons, it's not an invitation -- they have to be here," Dennis said.

WHO CAN FIX THIS --Nancy Dennis, jury commissioner, 410-333-3775

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