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Ventura County Perspective

Unlike Criminals, Jurors Get No Appeal

Editor's note: The Ventura County Superior Court has declared May 8-12 to be Juror Appreciation Week.

May 07, 2000|BRUCE ROLAND | Bruce Roland lives in Ojai

Some of California's heavily populated areas used to summon registered drivers and voters to the nearest courthouse and hold them there as potential jurors up to 10 days at a time. As a result, the state passed a law that limited jury duty to a one day or one trial maximum.

Many counties practiced this format before it became law, and a few experienced difficulties in providing enough potential jurors for their busy courts. Some, like Los Angeles County, tried to correct this juror shortage by cutting down on the number of reasons people could use to be excused from jury duty.

Ventura County recently joined the ranks by changing its jury summons form to accept only three valid excuses: having a physical or mental disability that would interfere with doing the job, having served on a jury in the previous 12 months or being a sworn police officer. But unlike the counties that chose to alter their forms to boost juror body counts, Ventura County--having never experienced a shortage--based its decision primarily on a desire to bring a broader range of potential jurors to its courtrooms. County judges wanted the opportunity to create a panel of jurors that could lend a different perspective to a case. (A lesser factor was the thought that some people just blew the system off with the idea that jury duty was great as long as someone else did it.)

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Without question, jury duty is essential to our constitutional right to a trial before a jury of our peers. The importance of jury duty has transcended responsibility to the realm of obligation, and diversity of thought is the best jury officials could offer all involved.

At the same time, it's probably safe to assume that the framers of our Constitution and authors of the old jury summons forms never wanted this obligation to result in personal hardships. The elimination of the legitimate financial hardship and primary caregiver excuses in the new forms dog exactly this.

Before this change, deciding whether jury duty at any given time would conflict with personal responsibilities was an option available to people who fell into these two groups, and mailing in the old form was an appreciated convenience. Now even the "one day or one trial" law offers little consolation because preparing daily schedules months in advance is not a luxury they enjoy. Regardless of how harmless "just one day" sounds, any day they are expected to appear in court to explain their situation to the judge could easily turn out to be a bad day for either someone they are taking care of or for themselves and their businesses.

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At the end of the day, the question of whether it was wise to bring people into the fold who should not or, for whatever reason, do not want to be there looms large. And if leaving jury service personnel out of the loop doesn't create the appearance of power play by the county's judges, it will make taxpayers wonder how many employees that department is going to require in the future since it has less work to do.

Knowing that only the best of intentions went into changing Ventura County's jury summons doesn't do much for those who, unlike the people actually on trial, will not be afforded any appeal of the judge's decisions. Like those in this decade's census forms, the breadth of the changes in the county's jury forms begs to be revisited.

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