About one in three Mendocino County residents summoned for possible jury duty are failing to show up.
Court statistics show that more than 12,000 people failed to appear at the county courthouse during the past year. They neither sought postponements nor asked to be excused. They just did not appear.
“It is a disturbingly high percentage,” said Kim Turner, Court Executive for the Mendocino County Superior Court.
Mendocino County is not an exception to a statewide trend. Trial court functions everywhere have been disrupted during Covid pandemic-related times, but the degree of failure among locals is startling, according to Turner.
“Our rate of failure to appear jumped to 33 percent for the fiscal year that just ended,” said Turner. In past years, that rate hovered between 20-25 percent.
Turner said the lack of jurors is hampering the jury selection process and is slowing down the ability to conduct civil and criminal trials in a timely manner.
Presiding Judge Jeanine Nadel said she worries about a shift away from citizens accepting a traditional civic duty.
“Jurors are absolutely essential to the process and without their full engagement, our justice system could come to a grinding halt,” said Nadel.
There are examples of major local criminal trials experiencing delays.
In late June, for example, the scheduled trial of the last of six defendants in a high-profile 2020 Covelo murder case was delayed because not enough potential jurors responded for jury selection to move ahead.
The case was put on hold while the availability of witnesses in the future could be checked. Fortunately, in the meantime, a plea agreement was reached with the last defendant in the case and a trial was averted.
The situation is similar in courts trying civil cases.
“We are juggling the best we can, including moving potential jurors who show up for one planned to another,” said Turner.
The Covid pandemic seriously interrupted court functions statewide beginning in 2020. For a period, trials were delayed because of potential health risks from convening large panels of potential jurors, and the stress on court staff, lawyers, spectators, and others involved in court proceedings.
Courts adopted new juror strategies as the pandemic concerns eased, and for a time they worked.
Turner said oddly in Mendocino County the failure to appear rate dropped to just nine percent during the worst of that era.
“People kept showing up, and we were able to function pretty smoothly even with trial delays,” she said.
Recent court statistics provided by Turner show that 40,179 jury summonses were mailed to eligible county residents in 2020-21 compared to 37,500 in 2021-22.
Yet only 3,584 people failed to show up in 2020-21 compared to a sharp increase to 12,373 in 2021-22.
In reality, only a small number of potential jurors summoned end up being sworn in to serve during court trials. Thousands of potential jurors are typically excused for hardship (medical, financial, care for a child or dependent adult, no transportation, and other reasons) or disqualified because they do not meet age, residency, citizenship, and other requirements.
Still, large numbers of potential jurors are needed for questioning by judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys before a dozen and alternates are selected to decide the outcome of individual criminal and civil cases.
“The simple fact is if we don’t have enough potential jurors for the process, the entire system gets thrown off,” said Turner.
There are no clear answers to why so many residents are now ignoring jury summons.
Turner said there are always economic issues at play, especially in inflationary times.
“I was told recently by a coast resident that he could not afford to drive to and from Ukiah daily because of the current gas prices,” said Turner. Potential jurors receive token reimbursements for their milage, and loss of wages if they are employed.
Still, residents need to show up and explain the difficulties of their serving to presiding trial judges, said Turner.
“We accommodate people the best we can but to not show up at all is a disservice all the way around,” said Turner.
The courts have the power to order show cause hearings for no-shows. “We may have to do that to understand why people are choosing to ignore this basic civic responsibility. We have to understand what is behind this troubling trend,” said Turner.