Circuit Court to reduce time asked of jurors


Linda Gomes doesn't mind performing jury duty -- she just wishes she didn't have to do it so often.

Ms. Gomes and thousands of Howard County residents like her will get that wish next spring, when Circuit Court officials begin using a new program that will make it easier for them to meet their civic obligations.

At a news conference today, state and county officials are expected to outline plans for a new jury selection system in Howard, one that officials hope will save tax dollars and call citizens for jury duty less often.

The computerized system, similar to ones now used in several other Maryland counties, will enable citizens to report to the courthouse in Ellicott City for jury duty only one day -- unless they get picked for a trial -- instead of the minimum of four days a month now required.

"We see jury duty as a tremendous responsibility," county Court Administrator John Shatto said. "This makes it a lot easier for [citizens] to perform their civic duty."

But there is a catch to the new system.

Because citizens only will have to report for jury duty once when called, more people will be needed to fill the pool of prospective jurors, Mr. Shatto said.

Mr. Shatto estimated that as many as 40,000 people a year will be needed to fill the court's jury boxes instead of the 10,000 citizens now called in for jury duty each year.

To meet this need, court officials will begin using records from the state Motor Vehicle Administration instead of just records from the county Board of Election, Mr. Shatto said.

Ms. Gomes, an analyst for the Department of Defense serving jury duty this month, said it's difficult to balance the four required courthouse sessions in one month with job and family responsibilities.

Ms. Gomes was picked to serve on a jury in a criminal case July 12. She reported to the courthouse again Wednesday, along with 60 other prospective jurors, but she was not picked for a trial. And she'll be back Wednesday for her final, required session.

As it happened, Ms. Gomes and other jurors in her group were allowed to skip their fourth required day this month because of the Independence Day holiday.

"It's an inconvenience," said Ms. Gomes of Columbia's Long Reach village. "You just accommodate the fact that you're not going to get into work. But I think that's the price you pay if you take your responsibility seriously."

William Kehoe, a North Laurel resident at Wednesday's session with Ms. Gomes, said he thinks more people will be willing to perform jury duty if they know they have to report to the courthouse only once.

Most people want to serve on a jury, but the four required sessions within one month pose too many conflicts for some citizens, particularly those who own businesses, Mr. Kehoe said.

"I think it will be good for Howard County," said Mr. Kehoe, an administrator at the Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory near Columbia.

Circuit Court has had 58 criminal and 46 civil trials between Aug. 22, 1994, and Wednesday, according to court statistics.

In the current system, court officials randomly select about 10,000 citizens from the county's voter rolls in April for jury duty for trials in the next 12 months.

The selected citizens are mailed brochures, which outline their responsibilities if called for jury duty. The brochures include forms that allow citizens to explain why they should be excused from jury duty.

Once the brochures are returned to the courthouse, the forms are reviewed to determine who should be excused from jury duty. Typically, college students, military personnel and the elderly don't have to report for jury selection.

The selection process takes about a month, but with the new computerized system, the work will be done in minutes, officials say.

People selected for the jury pool are then divided into groups, with each group designated to report to the courthouse on a particular day of the week, four times within a month.

Steven T. Merson, the county's jury commissioner, will oversee the new program. He has handled the selection process under the current method as a jury clerk.

The new program is expected to be in operation by December, with the first prospective jurors picked by the computer reporting to the courthouse in March, Mr. Shatto said.

The computer system for the program costs about $10,000, but the program should ultimately save money, said Margaret D. Rappaport, clerk of the Circuit Court.

HTC "My main objective is to save as much money as I can for the taxpayers of Howard County," Mrs. Rappaport said.

About 60 prospective jurors are now called to the courthouse Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, the days on which jury trials are held in Howard; Tuesdays and Thursdays are reserved for continuing trials and pretrial hearings. Each prospective juror is paid $20 -- even if no cases go to trial on their designated day, Mrs. Rappaport said.

Under the new system, people will be paid $10 when they arrive at the courthouse in the morning, but will receive another $10 only if they are asked to return in the afternoon, Mrs. Rappaport said.

To avoid bringing in prospective jurors when there aren't trials, Mr. Shatto said, the automated system will help court officials better determine when prospective jurors are needed and how many should be called on a specific day.

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