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Build a bigger jury box?

Kelly Coffey

When she drove to the courthouse in Eagle, Stephanie Gallegos knew that she needed to get there early to get a seat. This was the Minturn Middle School teacher’s second time serving jury duty in Eagle County, and both times the court was so filled with potential jurors that it was standing room only.

In fact, this day so many potential jurors showed up that the court clerk dismissed some of the jurors-to-be even before the judge or lawyers got a chance to sort through them.

Gallegos’ experience is not a one-time fluke. Eagle County citizens may be taking their civic duty more seriously, as evidenced by the decreasing numbers of summoned jurors skipping their court dates in the past couple of years. Despite the trend, absent jurors remain a problem that cost the courts – and therefore, the taxpayers – significant time and money.

The higher participation numbers have to do partly with judges’ threats, said Rohn Robbins, a local attorney.

Anyone who ignores their jury summons can be fined, ordered to do community service, or even sent to jail.

The court system has also worked to streamline the jury pool list to better get the summons into the hands of eligible jurors. According to Jackie Cooper, clerk of court for Eagle County Combined Courts, they remove from the list second-home owners and people who have moved away. They add proper post office box addresses to replace listed physical addresses where there is no home delivery. As a result, fewer summonses are returned to the courts.

Preventing mis-sent summonses is one step, but dealing with those that ignore their jury summons is an issue not going away. Different judges deal with it in different manners, from doing nothing, to writing letters, to even arresting the scofflaws, said Eagle County Judge Fred Gannett.

“Our main limitation is the time it takes,” Gannett said.

He cited that it could be one court employee’s entire workday to send out failure-to-appear notices for a single trial. With a court system already constrained by a tight budget and a tight schedule, that’s not something it can easily afford.

The state of Colorado already spends $3 to $5 million a year summoning citizens for jury duty, Gannett said.

That price tag is worth it because a trial will be rescheduled if too few potential jurors show up. That affects everyone involved with the case: the defendant, lawyers, and judge, as well as the witnesses and the jurors that showed up that day.

“We’ve had a fairly good turnout this year,” said Cooper, who did not recall a need to reschedule a trial this year due to a lack of jurors. Last year, one trial needed to be rescheduled because of a lack of potential jurors, she said.

Like many things in Eagle County, jury participation changes with the seasons. “Right after the mountain closes we have a hard time getting jurors,” Cooper said.

County court jury participation numbers are higher than district court numbers. Enough so that they are dropping the number of summonses sent out for a jury of six from 150 to 75. “Our numbers have been pretty good for long enough that we can risk dropping the numbers,” Gannett said.

Gannett remembered when, as a deputy sheriff in Pitkin County in the 1970s, he rounded up citizens at the post office to fill a jury box. Though that tactic is still legal in Colorado, Gannett says he and other judges prefer not to do that because of the attitude of those rounded up.

“You would get people that were just irate,” he said.

As a summoned juror, Gallegos showed up that morning in a much better state of mind than that. She was picked for the jury for a criminal trial that lasted two days.

“I would do it again to serve my country,” she said. “But I’m glad they’re going to give me a year. I would not want to do this that often.” VT


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