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Tough Rules for Jury Duty Try Patience of Residents

VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Court: Financial hardship and child-care responsibilities no longer excuse people from showing up. Officials say that ensuring fairness of the legal system is their goal.

May 28, 2000|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There is an angry vibe at the Ventura Hall of Justice these days--and it's not from the bickering litigants in divorce court.

This tempest is brewing in the large jury assembly room where fuming stay-at-home moms and frustrated business owners are griping about a recent change in court policy that now requires almost every Ventura County resident to show up when called for jury duty.

Gone are the days when people could check a box on their jury summons and avoid a day in court because they cared for young children or were self-employed.

Only three valid excuses are now accepted: having a physical or mental disability that would interfere with being a juror, having served on a jury within the past 12 months, or being a sworn police officer.

Everybody else has to show up--or run the risk of being held in contempt of court.

"The judges felt very strongly that our excuse policy was too lenient," said courts manager Peggy Yost, whose staff in the past three months has fielded thousands of angry letters and phone calls from reluctant jurors.

Trying to be flexible, court officials are allowing prospective jurors to postpone their obligation to a date of their choosing up to three months later.

A revised jury summons explaining that option will go out in July. But those efforts haven't silenced the grumbling.

For judges, the issue has been troubling.

The excuses raised in their courtrooms reflect a harried I-don't-have-time-for-this attitude among people who regard jury duty as an inconvenience--not a civic responsibility.

"Because of the pace of today's society, people have really forgotten that we are blessed with a lot of things," said Superior Court Judge Glen Reiser, who sits on the judicial committee that authorized the recent changes.

"The only burden we have as a society is paying taxes, jury duty and going to the ballot box," Reiser said. "And serving on a jury is a lot less painful than paying taxes."

Tell that to Susan Laschi.

A 33-year-old Thousand Oaks accountant, Laschi already juggles a part-time work schedule with full-time parenting responsibilities for two young daughters, ages 4 1/2 and 22 months.

She said jury duty was a hassle she didn't need last week.

"I'm not happy," Laschi said. "It's turned my whole week upside-down. It's just annoying that I have to come down here to explain, 'I can't help you.' "

Laschi, whose husband also works, said she would like to serve on a jury--someday.

Right now, she said, taking time away from work and her children, who have never been in day care, would be a financial and an emotional hardship.

When she came to court last week, Laschi left her girls with her 63-year-old mother, whose health prevents her from taking the grandchildren for more than one day, she said.

"I can't give up two or three days this week and upend my children," Laschi said, adding that she would like to see the courts reverse the policy and continue to exempt primary caregivers, like her, from jury duty.

"I understand the need for people to be here. I just wish they would give that excuse back."

Hardship Waivers No Longer Apply

The waivers, which gave people with financial hardships an automatic out, were stripped from the old jury summons in February and coincide with sweeping changes across California in the area of jury reform. The most significant change came in January when a statewide "one day, one trial" law went into effect.

This law promises jurors that they will be released from jury duty after the first day if they are not seated for a trial, instead of keeping them in limbo for several days. Ventura County has used that system for many years.

But officials said the number of people seeking exemption from jury service was increasing, in part because some local employers refuse to pay for jury service. As a result, judges say, it was becoming more difficult to find jurors who represent a diverse cross-section of the community.

"The problem, of course, is that a civil litigant or criminal defendant can never get a jury of his peers if the jury is comprised entirely of retired people or government workers," Reiser said. "You want people who have life experiences, who come from all walks of life--that is the whole idea behind our jury system."

But that message hasn't resonated with some members of the public, who simply don't want to be bothered.

J.M. Pusang, a 28-year-old Ventura resident who works the night shift at Albertson's grocery store, showed up for jury duty last week feeling tired and irritated. He had just gotten off work. He had been called for jury duty twice before in recent years, and didn't feel the need to serve again.

And although he said his employer pays for up to three days of jury service, Pusang was worried about losing $150 a day in income if he got picked for a trial that ran longer.

"I think they should pick people who aren't working," Pusang said. Asked whether he would want a jury made up of unemployed people if he had a case pending in civil or criminal court, Pusang shrugged.

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