A Superior Court judge took the unusual step Tuesday of calling about a dozen jurors into his courtroom to find out why they ignored requests to report for jury duty earlier this month.
During the half-hour session, Somerset County Superior Court Justice Robert Mullen said he got some insight into some of the obstacles that impede jurors from showing up for court. And he said the court is willing to work with Mainers who can’t always report when they’re called.
Inside the Skowhegan courtroom, prospective jurors ran through a brief list of explanations as to why they either failed to show up in court for jury duty or to give the court clerk’s office an explanation for their absence. Mullen said he had brought the jurors together not to scold or berate them but to learn why they were unable to perform their civic duty.
A young woman that Mullen referred to as Juror No. 6 said she did not have regular access to her mail.
“This happened last time and I thought I had fixed it with going down and giving them my change of address but you guys keep sending it to my old address,” she said.
Issues around mail popped up more than once, particularly among younger jurors who are sometimes working and living in one part of the county while receiving their mail in a different location. An older man, heavily bandaged and designated as Juror No. 28, said he recently learned he had developed some serious health issues.
“I have cancer,” he said.
“OK, I’m sorry to hear that. I would just point out to everybody there are reasons and explanations for people to be excused from jury service. If we get a doctor’s certificate or a doctor’s note or something, we try to work with people,” Mullen said. “If I had gotten that information, I wouldn’t have sent you a letter and we wouldn’t be talking here today.”
Juror No. 28 explained that someone at his doctor’s office had failed to notify the court of his diagnosis. Other jurors said they had been mistakenly told they didn’t have to show up. But transportation conflicts and job responsibilities were the reasons most often cited by jurors about why they ignored the judge’s call.
Although the Maine Legislature has raised the level of juror stipends from $10 a day to $15, it doesn’t begin to make up for a lost day’s work, or in some cases the cost of child care or transportation to and from the courthouse.
“I guess it’s more difficult to find a ride and find somebody because I just don’t want to get a rider and not pay them and with the job that I work, you don’t really get paid that much so it’s hard to find a ride here and be able to pay somebody for a full day to bring me here,” said Taylor Hall, who lives 20 miles away in Pittsfield. “I mean I know it’s $15 a day but a full day’s work and $15 a day is different — it’s hard.”
With Hall and the other jurors, Mullen listened patiently and then told them that the court will try to work with them to schedule their jury duty. He said he has heard just about every conceivable explanation for a juror failing to report.
“Prepaid vacation, I’m the sole practitioner in an office that I just can’t get someone to cover for me, I’ve got a doctor’s appointment, I have a wedding to go out of state,” he said.
Notwithstanding explanations, Mullen told the jurors that they were really only expected to do two things as American citizens: vote and show up for jury duty. He said the right to be judged by a jury of one’s peers is the foundation of the American justice system, and not being able to impanel a jury can frustrate a defendant’s right to a speedy trial and clog the court’s docket.
His meeting with the jurors, he said, is in part an effort by the court to demonstrate that it’s not OK to ignore a call for jury duty.
“Word gets around with things, like, ‘You don’t have to show up for jury duty, nothing will happen,’” Mullen said. “Well something could happen and I just didn’t want deal with problems with people showing up. So I just wanted to nip it in the bud.”
The jurors said they would try to work with the court to be dismissed from service according to court procedure or make themselves available for a future jury pool.
Under Maine law, jurors failing to respond to a court summons could potentially be found in contempt of court, facing fines and jail time.