Let Jurors Complain and Courts Listen

Gary Blasi is a UCLA law professor

There is a lot to love about jury service. The jury is the most democratic institution we have left in the U.S. The other 140 or so citizens sitting in the waiting room with me included postal clerks, custodians, electrical engineers, schoolteachers, students and unemployed people. What really distinguished this group is that they were all good citizens, among the one in eight who responded when called to serve.

There are also many things not to love about jury service, particularly in the Los Angeles courthouses that are the last in the state to comply with a 1999 law that limits juror waiting time to one day before being assigned. Under the ancient rule still in place in the downtown courts and in Santa Monica, jurors must serve either 10 days or complete one trial.

This translates into hundreds of people sitting in waiting rooms that resemble an airport in a blizzard. Here, though, everyone is on stand-by, waiting for days on end to be called. There are only hard plastic chairs or sunken foam furniture to sit on, no easy access to a fresh drink of water and no quiet place to get work done.

Unlike the airport analogy, no act of God is responsible for these waiting rooms. The system was designed long ago by ordinary people, and has been tolerated for a very long time by us all. The main problem is now set to be fixed in 2002, when all our courts will follow the "one day or one trial" law. But over the years, the system has wasted millions of hours of otherwise productive time, and subjected thousands of citizens to conditions usually reserved for prisoners.

Complaining about the irrationality and waste of the jury assignment system is the most popular activity in the waiting room. Scattered among the complaints are many ideas for a less burdensome system. The problem is that unless these complaints and suggestions are communicated to those with the power to make changes, nothing can come of them. After we are released, most of us are simply glad to get back to our lives.

But if we do that, we have not quite completed our civic duty. We also have a duty to provide feedback--to complain, in a respectful and civil manner--to those in a position to make things better.

The people who manage these operations usually did not design them. They often function under great stress and with too few resources. Sometimes they appoint task forces and conduct surveys, but they have no practical way of continually knowing what goes on unless we tell them.

The courts also sometimes bring in management experts and consultants to look at the system. In every jury assembly room there are some bright people with good ideas, available for the asking. But these unheard suggestions generally go home with them.

My own planned efforts to systematically gather some of my fellow jurors' reactions and suggestions were halted by a judge's order within minutes after I discussed my plans with the jury commissioner. Now that my duties as a juror are complete, I will pass along to the court some of the ideas I heard in the jury assembly room. Public officials, including judges, may not have a legal duty to listen, but there are good reasons why they should.

None of us should be surprised that our ancient jury system has resulted in 88% of the citizenry trying to evade it. Both the chief justice of California and the presiding judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court have announced plans to make the judicial system more rational and more easily accessible to ordinary citizens. These admirable plans will fulfill their potential only if two things happen. First, the courts must find ways to listen to their constituents--even the occasional bored prospective juror. Second, each of us must continue to fulfill the duty of every citizen, when our civic institutions could be better: the duty to complain.

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