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Juror shortage worries court

Posted 6/24/14 (Tue)

By Stephanie Allums
Farmer Staff Writer

One man’s decision could dictate another man’s trial date. Being summoned for jury duty is not something to sweep under the rug. Serving on a jury is demonstrating democracy at its finest.
According to McKenzie County States’s Attorney Jake Rodenbiker, “jury duty is an obligatory service that comes with other freedoms we enjoy.”
There are roughly 120 jury trials scheduled throughout the rest of 2014 in McKenzie County, and a few set for early 2015, Rodenbiker said. A jury trial is scheduled for early July, which will require a 12-man jury.
As of last week, there were a total of 940 pending criminal cases in McKenzie County, according to Rodenbiker. That includes cases prosecuted by the State’s Attorney Office and Wyatt Voll, the City Attorney.
Not one single jury trial has been held in McKenzie County this year. And according to Judge Robin Schmidt, trial by jury is the preferred method of resolving criminal and civil matters which come before the courts in the state.
Requesting a jury trial is a fundamental right by the federal and state constitutions. It is guaranteed to all citizens. However, if summoned jurors are not showing up for their duties, they are turning their heads to democracy, freedom and given rights. And not to mention the fact that if jurors fail to show, the individual requesting the jury trial may have to wait days, months or years for another trial date.
“Service as a juror or a witness is rarely convenient,” Rodenbiker said. “But it is essential to our system of civil and criminal justice, so much so that the act makes it a crime, a Class B Misdemeanor, for an employer to threaten or take adverse action against an employee who is summoned as a juror or subpoenaed as a witness and who obeys the summons or subpoena.”
An employer could receive up to $20,000 in fines for punishing their employees for obeying their summons.
“The law takes this duty very seriously,” Rodenbiker said. “And wants to encourage and protect those who do their duty.”
The Court recognizes the fact that serving on a jury will more than likely be an inconvenience, but it is every citizen’s responsibility. Judge Schmidt said, individuals who fail to report for jury duty directly impact the right to a fair and just resolution.
It’s well known that the McKenzie County population has increased significantly in the past five years or so. Going from 1,500 people to 15,000 people is huge. One would assume that because there are so many more people living here now, that the juror pool has also increased. But it has not. The dilemma which the county is facing now, is that many individuals are living and working in McKenzie County, but the majority of them are not registering as North Dakota residents and they are not applying for a North Dakota driver’s license, which means they are not added to the jury duty summons pool.
“Many folks fail to establish residency by changing a driver’s license or other action,” Rodenbiker said. “So they don’t vote here, and consequently they won’t be on the typical list of eligible jurors.”
Usually, jurors are selected from a list of voters in the latest election.
“The Clerk of Court is obligated to follow the law and direction of our Supreme Court with respect to determine who is eligible for jury service,” Rodenbiker said.
McKenzie County Clerk of District Court Lanae Roos said, “We have seen a huge influx of people, but they are not changing their licences or voting. Because we are not adding people to those pools, then the jury pool isn’t going to change either.”
Another struggle with getting jury duty summons to individuals is the fact that mail is slow and the post office does not deliver to Watford City residents at their physical address within the city limits if they have a post office box in Watford City. When jury duty summons are addressed, they go by the physical addresses. That’s the only address the court is provided with.
According to Roos, there was a scheduled jury trial earlier this month in McKenzie County. The court sent out 40 jury duty summons and only 13 individuals showed up. Some of the summoned jurors turned in appropriate excuses or arranged to reschedule. But many of the summoned jurors simply chose not to show up and offered no excuses. Because of the lack of juror turnout, the trial was solved without a jury.
“This is an unfortunate imposition to your fellow jurors who did make their appearance, only to be released or to have the proceedings delayed while waiting for additional jurors to arrive,” Schmidt said.
“If you were the person on trial needing a jury, you would want as many jurors to show up as possible,” Roos said.
Rodenbiker said, “Those who intentionally fail to obey a jury summons may be subject to contempt of court proceedings, which could result in the court imposing a fine or jail as a punitive sanction.”
McKenzie County is not the only county facing the issue of summoned jurors not showing up.
Last week, four individuals in Sanders County, Mont., each received a $100 fine for failure to contact the court and not showing up to their summoned jury duty.
“People should see how hard these clerks of court work to set up jury trials,” Sanders County Judge James Manley said. “It’s a monumental task. But if a whole lot of people don’t show up, it doesn’t work.”
If local summoned jurors follow in the footsteps of those who do not show up or contact the court with reasoning as to why they are incapable of presenting themselves for jury duty, maybe McKenzie County will be forced to issue fines as well.
Judge Schmidt wants the community to recognize the importance of each person’s role as a juror and solicit support.