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Even Judges Heed the Call to Jury Duty

When summoned to serve, officers of the court are required to show up, set an example.

May 16, 2003|Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writer

Eric C. Weissler had better things to do than sit on a jury for three weeks and neglect his clients. But the judge refused to excuse him.

So when the 11 others in the courtroom of Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Patricia L. Collins stood and took the juror's oath, Weissler, a Century City entertainment lawyer, did not participate.

He told the judge that he could not take an oath he believed was inconsistent with his oath as a lawyer to "serve zealously the needs of clients."

If he were forced to serve on the jury, he said, he would have to work on client matters in the morning, at lunchtime and into the night and while in the courtroom. He said he would "be experiencing exhaustion, resentment, anxiety over my clients' interests as well as a split attention between their interests and the process in here."

It worked. He was excused in November, but Collins ordered him back to court with an attorney to show why he should not be held in contempt.

That may be an extreme example, but it seems that many judges have had similar experiences.

"It's hypocritical," said Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Lance Ito, who presided over the O.J. Simpson trial. "If we can't get lawyers and judges to do [jury service], how can we ask others to do it?"

Judge Jacqueline A. Connor, who leads the Los Angeles court's jury committee, said judges remark in the lunchroom that lawyers who say they can spare only five days for jury service should be required to try their next case in the same amount of time.

Judge Terry A. Green recalls a partner in a big downtown law firm asking him last year whether a younger associate could take his place on the jury panel.

"I didn't get mad. I said I was once an associate in a large firm, and the answer is no," he said. "This is not one thing you're going to delegate."

Connor said the old excuse that lawyers, judges and other professionals rarely survive the jury selection process is no longer true.

"They are getting picked all the time," she said, noting that even judges are now required to report for jury service.

Judges often were granted "hardship" excuses by colleagues expecting the favor to be returned when they were called to serve. Two years ago, then-Presiding Judge James Bascue ended that practice.

Even Ronald M. George, chief justice of California, reported for jury service in December in the Criminal Courts Building in downtown Los Angeles.

Besides setting an example, Connor said, judges and lawyers also are getting a firsthand view of how frustrating jury service can be.

State law now requires courts to release jurors after one day of service unless they are chosen for a trial. With the higher turnover, the Los Angeles court needs three times as many jurors, or 10,000 a day.

Although citizens are called more often for jury duty under the new system, 80% are released after just one day, court officials said, compared with the old system that required all prospective jurors to report for at least 10 days of service.

Still, many prospective jurors are looking for a way out, most often because their employer will not pay them for those days, said G. Thomas Munsterman, a jury expert with the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Va.

The Los Angeles County Bar Assn. has launched a campaign to make it easier by encouraging employers to pay regular salaries while jurors serve. The first target: law firms.

Miriam Aroni Krinsky, president of the Los Angeles County Bar Assn., hopes that big law firms will adopt the suggested minimum standards for all of their offices -- not just those in Los Angeles. If they do, firms with more than 50 lawyers would pay employees for at least 15 days of jury duty; those with 50 lawyers or fewer would pay for at least 10 days; and those with three lawyers or fewer, at least five days.

"If we couldn't get law firms to support this, we aren't going to have success in the broader business community," Krinsky reasoned. "No one has yet to say no."

The state Judicial Council also kicked off a statewide effort this week to encourage employers to pay for jury service in recognition of National Juror Appreciation Week. In a letter to more than 10,000 senior executives and human resources managers, George asks them to "weigh the importance of jury service ... to our democratic ideals against the relatively modest cost."

Experts agree that an expanded jury pool will decrease the burden on individual employers and result in juries being more representative of society.

Unless jurors are compensated properly, "there will be whole groups of middle society that won't be represented in the courtroom," said Riverside Superior Court Judge Dallas Holmes, who heads a state jury task force. "We want the cross-section of doctors, lawyers, blue-collar workers and white-collar workers."

Holmes' panel considered a proposal that would require employers to pay for jury service, but decided against it.

"States don't like to tell employers what to do," Munsterman said.

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