Orlando Sentinel - Chief Judge to Jurors: We Can't Hold Court Without You

Frederick Lauten. Guest Columnist, May 1, 2018

A recent survey disclosed that nearly 75 percent of Americans have not experienced what it means to be a juror in our American justice system. Yet along with voting, being a juror is one of the most direct ways to participate in our democracy. The juror, not an elected representative, makes a decision on an accused’s guilt or innocence or on a party’s responsibility in a civil dispute. So why have so few Americans actually served as jurors? Certainly one of the reasons is that jury service is inconvenient and takes one away from numerous responsibilities attendant to daily life.

A second reason might involve the changing workplace. Smartphones and laptops connect employees to their jobs around the clock, creating an expectation that work can be accomplished whether they are offsite or at home. For already overburdened employees, taking time off work means more work once they return to their jobs. For self-employed individuals, reporting for jury service is a cost that hits the bottom line — if they are not working, they are not earning money. Also, transportation to the courthouse challenges many who receive a summons for jury duty.

Understanding the everyday strains of our hectic, fast-paced world, we try to provide jurors with a comfortable environment while they are waiting to be called to a courtroom. Our jury rooms have designated quiet areas where jurors can work on their mobile devices or charge their phones. Jurors who don’t need to work can read a book or a magazine or surf the web in our cyber cafés. We hope to welcome jurors and leave them with a positive, lasting impression of their juror experience.

We are mindful of the sacrifice of time and money that jurors make. Because judges and staff are directly responsible for processing jurors in our circuit, we have policies that limit the burden on prospective jurors. We have established a cutoff time by which judges have to request jurors for the following day, a deadline to order a jury panel on the day of trial, and a limit to the amount of time a jury panel can be waiting outside a courtroom before the members are returned to the jury room. In order to exceed these guidelines, a judge must get prior approval from the respective county’s jury judge.

We also run detailed reports to determine the lowest number of jurors needed on any given day, summoning only enough jurors to satisfy requests for jury panels. Whenever possible, we schedule jurors who have previously failed to report on days when they are more likely to be needed. These policies underscore how much we value jurors’ time and appreciate their willingness to report for jury service.

We are constantly looking for ways to eliminate obstacles to make it easier for people to report to the courthouse. Starting earlier this year, at my request to Lynx management, Osceola County jurors began riding free to and from the courthouse by simply showing their juror summons to a Lynx bus attendant, just as Orange County jurors have been doing.

Beginning this month, in an effort to make funds more readily available, Orange County jurors who are eligible by statute to receive compensation will receive it within days of completing their service in the form of debit cards. Once the funds are loaded on the cards, jurors can use the funds immediately at any location where MasterCard is accepted.

The judicial system relies heavily on the participation of jurors to provide everyone appearing in court with equal access to justice. We value the important contribution jurors make to our system of justice, and we appreciate the sacrifices they have to make to fulfill their service. Simply put, it would be impossible for us to do our jobs without them. To spotlight jurors’ vital contribution to our judicial system and to promote even more active juror participation, we’re launching our #justserve campaign this week. We hope you’ll join us in spreading the word.

So on behalf of the judges and staff of our circuit, I would like to thank everyone who has served. If you receive a summons for jury service, please understand how important your service is to the community, how much we appreciate your service, and the efforts we make to respect your time and commitment.

Frederick Lauten is chief judge for the Ninth Judicial Circuit, which serves Orange and Osceola counties.