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Why Did 70,000 Washingtonians Ignore Their Jury Summons Last Year?

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In 2014, the D.C. Superior Court sent more than 150,000 jury summonses. Seventy thousand people didn’t respond.
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In 2014, the D.C. Superior Court sent more than 150,000 jury summonses. Seventy thousand people didn’t respond.

A group of lawyers, judges and former jurors has spent the last year figuring out how to make D.C.'s jury system work better. At the top of their list: how to deal with people who don’t respond to a jury duty summons.

In 2014, the D.C. Superior Court sent more than 150,000 jury summonses. Of those, 22,000 were returned as undeliverable — and 70,000 people just didn’t respond.

D.C. resident Aubri was thrilled when she saw the letter from the city. “I pick it up and I see that it’s a jury summons, and I’m like ‘Yes!’” she says. “I am just dorky enough to really, really enjoy civic duty.”

Aubri doesn’t want her last name used, because of what happened next. Or more accurately, what didn’t happen.

“I filled it out and I put it in my pocket, and then I forgot about it, and I didn’t put it in the mail, and I didn’t find it again for like another month and by then it was just completely expired," she says.

That gave Aubri the dubious distinction of becoming one of the 70,000 who ignore their jury summons — aka ignoring a court order, which is against the law. All told, the “yield rate” in D.C. — the ratio of people who actually show up for jury duty — is 22 percent. The national average is double that.

D.C. has some excuses: It’s a transient city and the response rate is always lower in urban areas. But court watchers aren’t satisfied. The new report by the Council for Court Excellence sets out two dozen recommendations aimed at improving response rate and jury service in D.C.

Attorney Rodney Page of Bryan Cave chaired the working group looking at the jury summons process.

“Many people who ignore the summons are not doing so because they intend to disregard the law,” Page says. A lot of would-be jurors forget, and some just don’t understand how juries work. Still others choose not to participate because their work might count it against their vacation days.

“A policy which allows as an excused absence one that isn’t counted against vacation days, and one that maintains some compensation — if not full compensation — is the most encouraging kind of policy that an employer can have,” Page says.

The Council for Court Excellence last put out a D.C. jury report in 1998, long before sites like Facebook or Twitter existed. A lot of new issues have cropped up since then.

Courts have long warned jurors about the perils of conducting their own research online. "Jurors are not permitted to do what is instinctive these days, which is find out for yourself," says Peter Kolker of Zuckerman Spaeder, who chaired the working group on trial structure. “If a juror collects his own evidence and tries to introduce that into the process, they’ve bypassed the judicial screening, which is a vital role.”

But improper online research can also come from the lawyers, Kolker says. “How much can you find out about a juror by looking at his or her Facebook page or other social media?”

Court rules prohibit contact between a juror and an attorney. Kolker's group determined that looking at a juror’s public page is fine. What’s not OK? “Trying to friend the juror and get into their personal area,” Kolker says.

Other recommendations include letting citizens update their contact information with the court; ordering prosecutors to share with defense attorneys the results of juror criminal-background checks; and letting jurors submit written questions for witnesses. Now it’s up to the court to decide whether to implement the recommendations.

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