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The judge who had enough

The judge who had enough probably would not want you to know this. What judge would?

But here's a truth about jury duty: If you get a piece of paper in the mail telling you to report to state court and you do not show up, the grim consequences will be:

Nothing, probably.

Police will not likely arrest you. The government won't take your home. Your snub of the system will not plummet your credit rating or get your car booted.

How can this be? Hillsborough and Pinellas can each send out something like 1,500 courthouse invites a week. Using certified or registered mail to show people got them would cost big bucks. So how could authorities prove a summons even got to you?

So, yep, there is generally no penalty for refusing your duty as an American to be a critical element in the justice system, except for that part about how it can't function without you. Nada. Nothing. Zilch.

Until the judge who had enough.

On a busy Monday morning, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Greg Holder spent hours scraping up a mere 22 potential jurors for his pending criminal trials. Turns out that of 1,523 citizens summoned that day, 387 hadn't shown — about 25 percent, a typical rate. In Pinellas, it's 14 percent. (More retirees? More civic responsibility?)

So the judge had enough and ordered no-shows to his courtroom Nov. 4 to explain themselves. By law, not reporting for jury duty without "sufficient excuse" can get you a $100 fine and a contempt charge.

Can you blame the judge for banging his gavel to get their attention?

Some probably didn't come for legitimate reasons, like they moved. But a lot of us just don't want to. We work, we're busy, it's a pain and a disruption. It's like paying taxes — who's happy about that? — except we've come to enjoy things like paved roads and police protection. And a jury of our peers.

The system does try to accommodate. You can be excused at age 70, or if you're taking care of someone who can't care for themselves. If the date is inconvenient, you can ask to reschedule. You can write in the reason you don't want to serve — "can't afford to miss work" — to be reviewed by a judge, many of them pretty reasonable. And getting picked for a Casey Anthony-type mess is about as likely as getting struck by lightning, only less fun.

But without us to sit in the jury box, how's justice supposed to work?

Because I spend time in courthouses, people ask me how to get out of jury duty. I am not generally given to patriotic pronouncements, but I find myself talking about an imperfect court system that's also the best anyone's come up with, and how juries I've seen need more of the very people who duck them. I harp on "duty." Come to think of it, people don't ask me twice.

Once Holder got a jury and a verdict — not guilty — he thanked them, talked about their "awesome authority and responsibility" and said, "I'm going to go home and sleep very well tonight because you did your job." I bet in November, rather than fining those no-shows, he'd rather they just did theirs.

Last true story: After the news of the judge who had enough, an 85-year-old man exempted from jury service at age 70 at his own request called the Hillsborough office. Put me back on, he said, wanting to serve.

The judge who had enough 10/07/11 [Last modified: Friday, October 7, 2011 9:02pm]
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