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Everyone Into the Jury Box

May 24, 2003

The doctor swore up and down he didn't believe in the jury system. Your honor, he said, fidgeting as the judge questioned him in a Santa Monica courtroom last fall, I think jury trials are a waste of time and I simply can't be fair. Besides, he said, my waiting room is full of sick people who need me.

Oh, puhleeze. Each morning, thousands of citizens sink into the Naugahyde chairs in some of the county's 20 jury assembly rooms. Eighty percent will spend the day playing solitaire or plowing through Danielle Steele's latest potboiler, and, by 5 p.m., if no judge has called them, the court will dismiss them. Of those who land on a jury that first day, most will serve no more than five to seven days, and they'll do their best to listen to the lawyers' arguments in the case, weigh the evidence and come to a reasoned verdict.

"One-day-or-one-trial" has replaced the 10 days of thumb-twiddling that jurors used to endure throughout the state. And good riddance. But the success of this abbreviated jury service program depends on everyone participating. Everyone. The Los Angeles Superior Court needs as many as 10,000 people to report for jury duty every day to keep the county's 583 courtrooms humming.

No one gets an automatic pass anymore. Not even California Chief Justice Ronald M. George, who reported to a downtown courthouse last December. But like the "I'm-too-important-for-jury-duty" physician, some folks know that if they make a big enough stink, the judge will have to excuse them to ensure a fair trial.

Their antics put a heavier burden on conscientious citizens who recognize that they must do their part to help the courts dispense real justice. Employers shouldn't make that sacrifice costly.

Though some states, including Nebraska and Colorado, require employers to pay workers for jury duty, California has no such mandate. Many employers pay their workers, but too many others still make them use vacation days or take the time without pay -- not counting the $15 a day the county sends them. Although there are no statewide data, individual courts report a trend toward less financial support for employed jurors.

California businesses lobbied the courts for years to adopt one-day/one-trial so that jury duty wouldn't routinely tie up their employees for weeks. Now employers have an obligation to make the program work.

The chief justice recently wrote 10,000 senior executives who don't pay their employees, asking them to "weigh the importance of jury service ... to our democratic ideals against the relatively modest cost." Ironically, many law firms, which count on jurors being available, don't consistently pay their employees to serve. That's why the Los Angeles County Bar Assn. has called on all local law firms to support the program.

Chief Justice George has compiled an "honor roll" of companies that compensate employees for their service, and the Los Angeles bar has put together its own list of participating law firms. Memo to chief executives and law firm managers: Sign up.

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To Take Action: Businesses can join the state "honor roll" by e-mailing CAjuror@jud.ca.gov. Local law firms may contact ccashman@lacba.org.

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