Elsie Mathews entered the cavernous 16th-floor courtroom of Oregon’s chief federal judge, sat down at a table in front of the bench and waited.
She arrived in her white Metro West ambulance shirt and blue pants, expecting others to show. But it turned out she was the star attraction – the only one required to appear that morning.
U.S. District Judge Michael W. Mosman had ordered her to court to tell him why she brushed off jury duty in early April. Mathews faced a potential contempt of court citation, with up to a $1,000 fine and three days in jail if the judge didn’t like her answer, according to the Oregonian/OregonLive.
The rare summons marked the court’s frustration with people who ignore the call to jury duty.
Earlier this year, U.S. District Judge Anna J. Brown had questionnaires sent to 1,000 prospective jurors for the second trial in the takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, but about 200 questionnaires never came back.
“It’s very unfortunate,” Brown told prosecutors and defense lawyers as they readied for the trial in Portland.
No-show jurors are a growing national trend and affect the function of both federal and state courts, said Andrew G. Ferguson, law professor at the University of the District of Columbia and author of “Why Jury Duty Matters: A Citizen’s Guide to Constitutional Action.”
Many people look at jury duty as a burden that interferes with their work schedules or other commitments, Ferguson said. They’ve forgotten that it’s crucial to the functioning of the nation’s court system and a part of the country’s “constitutional identity” that gives them a voice in the administration of justice, he said.
The average failure-to-appear rate for jurors in state courts is 9 percent nationwide, but some courts have no-show rates as high as 50 percent. Federal court numbers are harder to come by because the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts doesn’t track the rate.
Federal courts do, however, record the number of people who show up for jury selection – and that number has dropped annually since 2012 – from 237,411 to 194,211 in 2016 nationwide. It’s not clear, though, if that’s tied to fewer trials held or more people ignoring jury duty.
Hearings like Mathews’ send the public a message to take jury duty seriously, legal observers say.
“What we’re finding now is that judges are starting to be more aggressive on the problem,” said Jeffrey T. Frederick, director of jury research services for the National Legal Research Group, a legal research firm. “The preference is not necessarily fine them but encourage them to participate in the future.”
Hands clasped in front of her at the table, Mathews looked up at Mosman.
“Your Honor, it was essentially poor planning on my part,” she said.
She had been called for jury duty on what turned out to be a three-day fraud and theft trial.
“I’ll tell you that we were close to not having enough people to hear the trial,” Mosman told the Sandy woman.
Mathews, 37, said she needed to take her 10-year-old daughter to the school bus stop that morning at 8:15 a.m. and had mandatory training at work. She had called into court about 4:30 p.m. the day before, saying she would be late for jury duty. She was told that she was required to be at court by 8 a.m., she said.
Instead, Mathews didn’t come at all.
“I didn’t plan well in advance for it,” she told the judge.
Federal courts in Oregon sent 12,000 notices for jury duty last year.
People typically are told to call an informational telephone line to check in. They don’t have to come to court if the trial has been rescheduled or canceled. That happens a lot — civil cases settle or criminal defendants reach plea deals, juror administrators said.
If a trial is still on, jurors must show up and can then ask the judge to excuse them or defer their service to another time.
If they don’t show, jury coordinators mail them another letter, asking them to contact the court with an explanation for their failure to appear. Their names are then returned to a list of jurors eligible for future service, said M. Claire Tremble, courtroom services supervisor for Oregon’s federal courts.
While federal courts in Oregon haven’t had a significant no-show issue, employees are aware of fluctuations and keep an eye out for abnormal patterns, Tremble said.
In Multnomah County Circuit Court, the state’s busiest court, juror no-shows aren’t a major problem, but staff members have noticed that appearance rates dip during certain times of the year, such as the holiday season or start of a school year, said Rachel McCarthy, a court analyst and spokeswoman.
There were one or two times in the past two years when the court didn’t have enough jurors come on a particular date, McCarthy said.
On a recent day, 580 people were called for jury duty and another 125 people had deferred their service to that date. Only 25 percent, or 176 people, of the total showed.
“The jury room staff reports that this is an expected rate of appearance,” McCarthy said.
Federal courts around the country are taking steps to help improve the juror experience – from automated voice, email or text-messaging systems that remind people to show up to new electronic kiosk check-in systems that allow jurors to check in each morning by scanning their summons letters.
But those things aren’t in place in Oregon’s federal courts.
“Courts are trying to be a little more user-friendly,” said Nicole Waters, a court research consultant for the Center for Jury Studies, part of the National Center for State Courts.
Courts also try to reduce any hardship for jurors by providing reimbursements for their travel mileage, parking or public transportation costs.
In Franklin County Municipal Court near Columbus, Ohio, the jury commissioner has taken the unusual step of brewing fresh coffee for jurors and playing music from a James Taylor concert on a flat-screen TV in the jury assembly room as a way to help them relax.
In Oregon’s federal courts, jurors get $40 a day for their service; it rises to $50 a day after 10 days of duty. They get 53.5 cents a mile for travel.
If they live more than 100 miles from the courthouse or the case requires sequestering them, the government pays for their lodging and provides a daily allowance for meals. Otherwise, the court often provides lunches during trial breaks.
Mosman explained to Mathews earlier this month that she could have given the court advance notice of any conflicts or hardship and likely would have been excused.
“Your obligation was to contact us much earlier than the night before,” the judge said.
He told Mathews that she was just one of 50 people the jury coordinator had to shepherd that day to ensure a large enough pool to select a 12-member jury for trial, plus alternate jurors. A delay in the start of a trial can cost thousands of dollars in lost time, Mosman said.
“I would be willing to do it again if I have the opportunity,” she said.
Mosman corrected her.
“I appreciate your offer to serve,” he replied, “but you didn’t need to offer because you’re obligated to do so.”
He told Mathews that her name will be included in the jury pool queue again.
Mathews emerged a little shaken from her face-to-face meeting with the chief judge but admitted she was in the wrong.
“If everybody just shrugged it off, then nobody would be here,” she said. “I hold myself accountable. I should have alerted the court ahead of time.”
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