BROOKSVILLE — Clerk of Court Don Barbee walked into the jury assembly room at the Hernando County Government Center on a recent Monday morning and his heart dropped.
The rows of chairs that should have been filled with prospective jurors were virtually empty. Of the more than 100 people who had been summoned, 63 were eligible for duty and should have shown up. At the 8:30 a.m. start time, there were only six.
"To see just six jurors sitting there was quite disheartening," Barbee said.
Barbee said the lack of potential jurors — even with the additional nine who showed up late — would have prevented the two jury trials scheduled for the week of June 23 from proceeding had those cases not been resolved at the last minute. It would have been a costly delay, affecting the parties in the cases, attorneys, witnesses, court staffers and judges.
"A huge number of people depend on these jurors showing up," he said. "The justice system can't work without these people being there."
Now the court has decided to do something about it.
Confronted with low juror turnout in recent weeks, Circuit Judge Daniel B. Merritt Jr has issued orders to show cause for the 48 jurors who were eligible for jury duty on June 23 but failed to show.
The residents have been ordered to appear before Merritt on Aug. 11 to personally explain why they failed to appear for jury duty and why the judge shouldn't find them guilty of a violation of Florida statutes or hold them in contempt of court.
Consequences are steep, ranging from a warning to a fine and potential jail time.
Merritt declined to comment because of the pending cases, but Barbee said the court has been given no choice but to take these measures.
"This is really a last resort that he nor I really wanted to do," said Barbee.
Barbee said the court averages a show-up rate of about 50 to 55 percent, but that has dropped precariously low recently.
"We've had two weeks in the last six weeks that are what led to the decision by Judge Merritt," he said.
For the week of June 23, the attendance rate was 23 percent — 15 of 63 eligible jurors. On May 27, it was 33 percent, meaning only 20 of the 60 eligible jurors showed up.
The number of eligible jurors excludes those who were excused or had their time postponed.
While Barbee said the court has figured out ways to make things work when at least half of the eligible jurors show up, it becomes problematic when the percentage drops much lower than that. He hopes the judge's order to bring the delinquent jurors to court will increase juror turnout in the future.
"It will hopefully bring to light not only the importance of appearing, but also the fact that it's a court order to appear," he said. "It's not an invitation to a party."
Barbee said this is the first time a Hernando judge has taken this action in at least a decade, though judges in other counties in the Tampa Bay area have done so. He said that juror attendance spiked to about 70 percent in Hernando after one such case got a lot of media attention.
In December 2012, a Pasco County judge ordered 103 people who had skipped at least two jury summonses to explain why they had shirked their civic duty. Noting that he could have fined them, he eventually decided to let them off with a warning — and a lecture. All were rescheduled for duty.
A similar scene played out in November 2011 in Hillsborough. A judge was so infuriated when he had 387 no-shows for jury selection that he issued orders requiring them to appear. They, too, got off with a stern warning and a promise of more jury duty.
Gregory Youchock, chief of court services with the Florida Office of the State Courts Administrator, said low juror turnout is a problem that crops up from time to time across the state and the country.
Youchock said orders to show cause are an effective technique to increase the number of potential jurors. Judges don't like when they're unable to conduct trials because of an insufficient jury pool.
"Justice delayed, justice denied," he said.
Barbee said jury duty — and the right to a trial by your peers — is fundamental to democracy, something to value and not to be taken lightly.
"This is an important founding principle of our Constitution that can't work if citizens don't show up for jury duty," he said.
Contact Danny Valentine at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432. Follow @HernandoTimes.