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jury duty

The courthouse shuffle

Justice rearranged.

Flood waters damaged several buildings in the courthouse complex , which is spread across a dozen city blocks in north downtown. The county’s shiny new underground jury assembly building flooded, but the biggest casualty was probably the destruction that has closed the 20-story criminal justice center for at least six to nine months. The loss is immense because the building housed the entire district attorney’s office, an agency of 330 lawyers and almost 400 staffers, the public defenders office and 40 courtrooms, staffed with clerks, coordinators, court reporters and others.

The reason it is such a hardship to relocate is because each of those courtrooms had holding cells and access to private elevators so inmates could be brought securely from the Harris County Jail across Buffalo Bayou in tunnels and bridges without any contact with the public.

With the loss of that building, the county’s 22 felony courts have doubled up in courtrooms in the civil courthouse, pushing the civil, family and probate courts together.

Since there are few if any holding cells in the relocated courts, the people in jail are expected to have court in jailhouse courtrooms with revolving dockets. The very few holding cells will likely be reserved for trials when jury selection resumes Sept. 25.

Jury service is suspended through the 22nd – see here for more information about that, or call the District Clerk at (832)927-5800 if you have questions about that. That same link has information about the court dockets if you have an appearance coming up, as does this link. Expect things to be a little chaotic and more than a little cramped going forward, but we will get through this.

Jury duty pay raise

If you get called for jury duty, you’ll get a little extra something for your time.

District Clerk Chris Daniel

For the past two years, jurors in Harris County and elsewhere have been paid $30 a day or less for every day of service after the first, on which everyone must be paid at least $6 for showing up regardless of whether they are selected to serve. That is down from the $40-a-day pay the Legislature approved in 2005, when it gave jurors their first pay raise in half a century, increasing daily compensation from $6.

In 2011, facing a multibillion-dollar budget shortfall, the Legislature slashed that daily amount, to $28 initially and then $30 in October 2012, but also promised to restore it two years later. Starting this month, jurors began making $40 a day again.

Harris County District Clerk Chris Daniel, whose office oversees jury duty, is hoping the bump will encourage more people to respond to summonses, particularly low-income, retired and unemployed residents, and lead to more ethnically and socioeconomically diverse juries.

For that population, “every little bit helps to incentivize them to do their constitutional, civic duty,” said Daniel. “And while I believe there’s more that could be done to incentivize the lower economic brackets to ensure that we have a completely diverse jury pool, this is definitely a significant step in the right direction to make sure that the lower economic bracket can afford to come to perform their constitutional, civic duty.”

[…]

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who sponsored the 2005 bill that hiked juror pay for the first time since 1954, said he is “pleased that the drastic cut to already-low juror pay has been reversed,” but that $40 still is insufficient to entice low-income residents.

“I still think it’s time for the Legislature to have a serious conversation about increasing it beyond $40,” Ellis wrote in an email. “If our state’s goal is to have a jury of our peers, we have to recognize that far too many hard-working Texans struggling to earn a living wage can’t miss a day of work for just $40.”

This is nice, but it should be noted that the increase from the current $28 to $40 is only for the days after your first day of service. If you go in and don’t get seated, you get the same $6 for your presence as before. The bump to $40 is nice and long overdue, but it’s not close to a real day’s wage for anyone who doesn’t get paid while doing jury duty. That remains a matter for the Legislature to fix, and I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for them. Be that as it may, as a reminder you can donate your more generous jury duty pay to a variety of good causes if you want to, and it’s as easy as going to the Juror General Information page to make it happen.

On encouraging jury service

District Clerk Chris Daniel notes that many people do not get paid when they take off work to serve on jury duty, and that therefore they generally choose to ignore their summonses.

District Clerk Chris Daniel

During the upcoming session, the state Legislature can address this issue and ensure that jury pools include a true cross-section of county residents by passing a law allowing businesses that pay workers during jury service to receive a discount on the state business margins tax.

State law prohibits companies from firing workers who are absent due to jury service. But it does not require employers to pay workers – only five states impose such a requirement.

But there are ways for government, without being intrusive, to provide businesses with incentives to pay workers absent because of jury service. Lawmakers will consider passing House Bill 433, which would allow employers to claim a 15 percent discount when calculating their state margins taxes if they pay workers who are out for jury service.

This law would have far-reaching benefits:

  • More people, including low-wage employees, would appear for jury service.
  • The public likely would have increased confidence in the judicial system knowing that a more representative cross-section of society was serving on juries.
  • Taxpayers would save money because the District Clerk’s Office would mail tens of thousands fewer jury notices.
  • With more people appearing for jury service, residents would be called to serve less often.

Here’s HB433, authored by Daniel’s co-writer, Rep. Debbie Riddle. If I’m reading the text of the bill correctly, a company can apply for the credit for each day on which an employee served jury duty if the employee was paid for that day. The bill directs the Comptroller to come up with rules for how this will be implemented, so it’s a little hard to fully evaluate this. My first thought is that there ought to be some limitation on what kind of company can apply for this credit, lest big businesses that have routinely paid their salaried employees when they do jury service apply for the credits. It’ll be interesting to see what the fiscal note is for this as well. Beyond that, it seems like a reasonable idea to solve a legitimate problem, but more details are needed before I can say with any confidence whether this is a good and workable solution or not.

You can donate your jury duty pay to charity

As you probably know if you have been called to jury service in Harris County, jurors get paid $6 for showing up, and $28 per day after the first day if they are selected to serve on a jury. What you may not know is that you can donate that pay to charity if you are so inclined, and that doing so benefits the county as well as the charities.

District Clerk Chris Daniel

In fact, Harris County District Clerk Chris Daniel said all of those $6 donations added up this year to more than $100,000, which was doled out among six choices according to the giver’s preference.

“This is a way for charities who don’t necessary receive a lot of public spotlight but do a lot of good for the courthouse and for the community to receive donations,” Daniel said. “The reason we focus on court-centric charities is that there is a direct benefit to the taxpayer for what they do to aid the justice community.”

Daniel is working to make the option more visible for prospective jurors, including approving commercials, made by each charity, to run on televisions in the jury assembly rooms that explain the form and each charity’s mission.

He touted the system as a way for civic-minded people to give to a good cause while saving the county money on paper, bank transactions and postage.

According to the story sidebar, you have the choice of the following charities if you wish to donate your juror pay:

Victims of Crime Fund

Children’s Protective Services Child Welfare Service Fund

Child Advocates, Inc.

Crime Stoppers of Houston, Inc.

Casa De Esparanza De Los Ninos, Inc.

Tejano Center for Community Concerns, Inc.

I couldn’t find a link for the Children’s Protective Services Child Welfare Service Fund. Donating juror pay to one of these charities is a fine thing to do, and I plan to do it the next time I’m called for jury service. I do have one suggestion about this for District Clerk Daniel, who I know reads this blog, and that is to include all this information on the District Clerk jury service webpage. The Juror Service General Information page tells you how to apply to be a charity that can receive these donations, but nowhere do I find anything that tells jurors that they can donate their pay. Ideally, there would be a link right there to fill out that form as well. Seems like a no-brainer to me.

The demographics of jury service

Why is it that juries in Harris County tend to not reflect the demography of the county as a whole? District Clerk Chris Daniel explains why in a recent Chron op-ed. If you’re familiar with the concept of “citizen voting age population” (CVAP), you will likely nod your head as you read it. This isn’t everything – who responds to jury summonses, and who gets picked (and who gets eliminated) by the lawyers during voir dire has something to do with it as well – but it’s a significant factor. It’s also something we should ensure changes over time, as the currently-young Latino population grows up.

On a tangential note, Greg gives us another look at the distribution of Latino registered voters in Harris County. It’s a different topic but the same underlying dynamic, and another thing we should observe over time to see how it changes. In each case, if the change observed is significantly different from what one might reasonably predict to happen, it’s an indicator that something has very likely gone wrong.

No texting while deliberating

If you get called in for jury duty in Harris County, you can now get free WiFi in the Jury Assembly Room. But once you get into a courtroom, and especially if you get empaneled, you should expect to have to unplug.

If you think you’re going to use your spanking new iPhone to entertain yourself next time you’re on jury duty, think again.  Judges are going to take an even dimmer view of jury member use of Blackberry, iPhone or other electronic devices as a judicial policy-setting group has told district judges they should restrict jurors from using electronic technologies to research or communicate.

The Judicial Conference Committee on Court Administration and Case Management for the United States District Courts said it developed instructions that would be issued by judges, “to address the increasing incidence of juror use of such devices as cellular telephones or computers to conduct research on the Internet or communicate with others about cases. Such use has resulted in mistrials, exclusion of jurors, and imposition of fines. The suggested instructions specifically inform jurors that they are prohibited from using these technologies in the courtroom, in deliberations, or outside the courthouse to communicate about or research cases on which they currently serve, the group stated.

Specifically, those instruction spell out that jurors should not you should not consult dictionaries or reference materials, search the internet, websites, blogs, or use any other electronic tools to obtain information either before the trial, during deliberations or after until the judge instructs otherwise.

The instructions state jurors must not use cell phones, e-mail, Blackberry, iPhone, text messaging, or on Twitter, or communicate through any blog or website, through any internet chat room, or by way of any other social networking websites, including Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, and YouTube.

In the old days, judges instructed jurors not to read the newspaper or watch the news, or discuss the case with anyone. This isn’t really different from that, it’s just a revision for modern forms of news and discussion. Better to spell it all out than to risk a mistrial somewhere because a juror didn’t realize that not discussing the case meant not posting a Facebook status update about it, too.

Harris County Jury Assembly Room now has WiFi

Jury service in Harris County just got a little more pleasant. The following is a press release from District Clerk Loren Jackson:

Today’s universal tech boom has given way to ‘digital dependence.’ Harris County citizens are no different when it comes to relying on digital connection. In a move bridging a major digital divide and potentially improving attendance to jury service, Harris County District Clerk (HCDC) Loren Jackson announced public wireless Internet in the Harris County Jury Assembly Room. Starting today, citizens summoned to jury service can bring laptops, personal digital assistants (PDA) or other wireless-ready devices to access filtered, wireless Internet while waiting on the jury selection process.

“Jury Service is crucial to the judicial system of Harris County,” Jackson said. “We are doing our part to make it more convenient for our citizens to show up when they’re summoned. Providing them with free WIFI enables them to stay connected to their family and their work. Jury service should be thought of as ‘a great form of service,’ not just an obligation or duty. Jury service is a way to serve your community and your peers.”

In Harris County, approximately 3000 people report for jury service each week, many of whom count on online access to stay productive and connected. While content filtering will be utilized, prospective jurors will be able to access most media and general content Web sites, as well as use general search engines, instant messaging and e-mail. Prospective jurors should ensure their digital devices are fully charged prior to reporting for jury service, as there are a limited number of power outlets available for use within the Jury Assembly Room.

The office of the Harris County District Clerk made providing wireless Internet access to prospective jurors one of its top priorities and worked closely with AT&T for several months to secure the installation servicing most of the first floor surrounding the Jury Assembly Room.

The installation of wireless Internet in the Jury Assembly Room is just part of a greater initiative launched by the District Clerk’s Office utilizing technology to provide improved, efficient services and greater convenience to the public.

Very cool. I’d first heard about this from Jackson a few weeks back, and I’m glad to see that it’s now in production. The District Clerk website, which says that a new version of itself is in the works, doesn’t have any further info on this, but I’m sure you can get any questions you might have answered by contacting them directly.