Poll finds judges are concerned about increasing numbers of people ignoring summonses for jury duty

By Ed Cohen

The majority of trial judges who responded to our October survey about jury service said yes, they have noticed an increase in the number of people ignoring summonses to serve.  

Some said this is a longstanding problem and stems from practical difficulties like out-of-date mailing lists. But far more blamed the trend on a real or perceived lack of consequences for not showing up. An equally large number said they see declining respect for the judiciary, the law, government, the responsibilities of citizenship, or all of the above.   

The informal poll, emailed to NJC alumni, drew 209 responses, a small number compared to typical participation in Question of the Month*. That was likely due to many alumni, particularly administrative law judges, not having jury trials. Of those who voted, nearly 58 percent said they have noticed an increase in the number of people ignoring summonses for jury duty.  

Several said the response rate in their jurisdiction had fallen to below 50 percent.  

“We normally send out 325 to 350 in an effort to have 90 to 100 appear,” wrote one anonymous judge. 

In Herkimer County, New York, between Albany and Syracuse, a judge had to declare a mistrial after so many people ignored the jury summons, wrote retired Village Judge Phil O’Donnell, Jr. 

“I think it reflects many disturbing trends in our present society,” commented an anonymous judge. “These include a lack of respect for authority, a decline in civic responsibility, and a lack of pride in our communities and our nation. When I first went on the bench in the ’90s, it was not unusual for us to have 100 percent attendance for jury duty.” 

“People think they are too important and too busy for jury duty,” wrote another anonymous judge. “After serving four years on active duty in the USMC — wrong attitude to have with this Senior Circuit Judge.” 

Missouri Circuit Court Judge John F. Newsham wrote: “I think the people who think they are too busy don’t really understand, as educated as they may be, how vital jury attendance is to keeping America a nation of the people and for the people. Sounds like I am running for office or some pie-in-the-sky words, but it is absolutely true. Our jury system is the No. 1 reason that the United States is still the freest country in the world.” 

Some judges said they still see high participation rates.  

“We have over a 90 percent rate of jurors appearing for court on jury days,” wrote Judge Thomas A. Januzzi of the Oberlin (Ohio) Municipal Court. 

But far more despaired of falling rates, and many said it reflects larger societal changes.  

One unnamed judge described the phenomenon as “a general decrease in the respect for institutions and especially government.” The cause? “When you have national leaders that send the message that the law doesn’t apply to them, it allows others to believe that it doesn’t apply to them either. Sad!” 

Many others blamed the decline on a lack of consequences for ignoring jury summonses. Some called for the institution or revival of fines.  

“People don’t seem concerned about fines or contempt charges if they fail to appear, as most courts don’t seem to pursue (them) … and when people do appear, they clearly indicate their lack of interest in participating and imply (that) if selected they won’t do their due diligence,” an unnamed judge wrote. 

Judge Pandora E. Palmer of the Superior Court of Henry County, Georgia, was among several who mentioned having issued orders-to-show-cause to find out why people ignored a summons.  

She found that the Covid pandemic had discouraged some from serving. So had economics, “especially those who are self-employed and living paycheck to paycheck. The $25 daily fee that we pay jurors discourages most people as they aren’t even getting paid minimum wage for being here.” 

Among other factors mentioned: people who don’t like the idea of confrontation, which jury duty might entail. There are also apparently people who never even see their summons because they don’t open their mail. They only pay attention to electronic communication, a judge reported.  

“If it is in the mail, (they assume) it is junk mail.”  

Circuit Court Judge Michelle Morley of Sumpter County, Florida, west of Orlando, said many of the residents of her jurisdiction are snow birds – northerners who flock to the Sunshine State only for the winter. Like many parts of Florida, the county also has an aging population, and Florida automatically excuses people over 70 from jury duty if they wish to be excused, she said. 

“Consequently, in the summer time we have to summons 500 jurors to have 80 show up.” 

Different courts are taking different approaches to countering the trend. 

One judge reported an uptick in people ignoring summonses and failing to return juror questionnaires. The court responded with orders to show cause and held hearings suggesting that contempt charges would be in order if they didn’t comply by agreeing to serve during the next jury term.  

“Our efforts were publicized in our local paper and compliance has improved significantly,” the anonymous judge wrote. 

On the other hand, Presiding Judge Staci Williams of the 101st District Court in Dallas County, Texas, said her court always has enough jurors.

Her secret? 

“My court does everything possible to make the experience positive and fun so that they want to return.” 

* Each month the College emails an informal, non-scientific one-question survey to its more than 12,000 judicial alumni in the United States and abroad. The results, summarized in the NJC’s Judicial Edge Today, are not intended to be characterized as conclusive research findings. The NJC is a nonpartisan, nonpolitical organization and these monthly polls are designed to engage our alumni in thought-provoking dialogue.

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