Jury Summons Is Guilty of Confusion

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Los Angeles County court system has come up with a new jury summons form so dense that even some judges can't make sense of it.

The form, resembling a cross between a mortgage application and a deli menu, has generated a flood of complaints--including one from a Pasadena resident called to jury duty: Judge Lance Ito. He filled it out incorrectly.

"Even the IRS couldn't dream up something so complicated!" Ito fumed. "Holy smokes, this is horrible."

The new form was drafted for the Los Angeles County courts' new jury system and is designed to streamline the process for the 4.5 million prospective jurors contacted yearly.

But as court officials and committees insisted that more and more information be included, the summons form that was once relatively easy to understand has become a complex, text-laden document with folding instructions that appear to require a knowledge of origami.

"We had experts try and help us turn it into English and make it dummy proof, and it's still unbelievable," said Superior Court Judge Jacqueline Connor, vice chairwoman of the courts' jurors committee.

Handed a form, it took Connor nearly two minutes to figure out where the prospective juror was supposed to report.

"We didn't realize we were creating this monster," Connor said with a sigh.

The summons form was designed to work with new jury procedures introduced to ease the burden of jury service. Under the new system, prospective jurors not assigned to trials during their first full day of service are simply released, and no juror is forced to serve for more than one trial. The system was launched in the Pasadena and Pomona court districts in May, and was started last month in Van Nuys. It will be introduced in the remaining 42 county districts on a district by district basis.

But when the first copies of the new multicolored forms were delivered from the printer on a rush basis last year, jury services director Gloria Gomez was horrified. She called to limit the run to a three-month supply.

"We had to get on this right away," she said.

Several focus groups later, a bit of the bulk has been removed and some of the language simplified. Indeed, Van Nuys residents who began receiving the form in March in preparation for the introduction of the new jury system to their district have been getting the fourth revision.

But Gomez admitted that a way to make the form a user-friendly document is still elusive.

"It's a work in progress," she said. "We are going to get this right."

The process of drafting new forms began in December 1998, when court officials announced they would institute reforms aimed at boosting the extremely low number of residents who participate in the jury process.

Gomez's department was given four months to oversee the implementation of a new summons regimen that would rely heavily on automated processing. "There was no way we could have ever hired enough people to process all the information that would be coming in with this new system," she said.

As one of the changes, the county introduced a computerized, interactive phone system to register jurors according to assigned identification and personal identification numbers, and to ask them to key in answers to several questions concerning eligibility.

The mail form was needed to prepare people for using the telephone system and to explain the processes, including term of service, procedures, postponements, medical excuses and parking. Also, the form had to include legal information required by state law.

The task of putting all the information into one document was far more complicated than expected. "We had to explain how to use the new system, including all the exceptions and alternative directions for lots of different situations," Gomez said.

In addition, the department used the opportunity of a new form to include information that had been suggested over the years by court officials and jurors themselves.

"People said to us, 'Why don't you use the form to tell us everything we need to know about jury service?'

"So we did."

Connor admitted that her committee didn't help matters by making several suggestions of its own. "We were always saying, 'Let's put that in.' We were adding and adding and adding."

And a deadline was approaching. Gomez contacted several printers to bid out the project. The preferred mock-up came from Corporate Express, a Los Angeles company that was given a $50,000 contract to design and print forms for the launch.

Gomez said she knew it would be far from perfect, but time was running out. "We were trying to include too much," she said.

That first version, which Ito got, was 17 by 17 inches when unfolded. Decisions were made to slim down the form by eliminating large blocks of information, including the juror handbook. Gomez said the courts have gone back to handing it out as a brochure on the first day of service.

The current form is down to 11 by 17 inches. But with the size reduction have come other problems: For instance, Section H comes before Section A.

Because of the complexities of implementing the system in the large Van Nuys district, the next revision of the form will not be available until September, Gomez said. In the meantime, members of her staff deal daily with people who are flummoxed by the form.

"Especially elderly people," said office assistant Donna Woods, who in some cases takes all the necessary information over the phone, fills in the application and mails it to the prospective juror with instructions about what to do next.

"People come in and say, 'We don't even know where to start.' "

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