Jury commissioner proves unsung courthouse hero He makes doing time bearable for jurors


Organizing jury duty is a lot like planning a wedding. You invite people from all over the county, worry about where they are going to sit and try to keep them entertained.

The difference is there's no cake. Or music. Or really that much fun.

"Just 10 bucks. Cash. It's the only way to do business," says Steven T. Merson, who, as jury commissioner for Howard County Circuit Court, is assigned the logistical nightmare of getting jurors to the courthouse and into the courtroom.

The job can be hard when some see Merson as the deacon of drudgery, the officer of civic duty -- hauling them in for hours of boredom under the threat of a jail sentence or a fine.

But Merson, 35. is undeterred. He plies reluctant jurors with jokes, and his bouncy, easygoing manner soothes nerves.

On most days, he can be found dashing around the courthouse, talking to attorneys, judges and clerks as he tries to stay on top of the 100 or so criminal and civil cases set for trial.

Or he is shepherding lines of Howard County residents through the courthouse hallways.

"He is kind of the unsung hero of the courthouse," says District Public Defender Carol A. Hanson. "It's the people behind the scenes that keep things going in the courthouse, not the people you see in the courtroom."

Half of Merson's job is making the jurors' time more fun than, say, going to the dentist. The other half is getting them there in the first place.

It is a hair-raising feat of logistics. Every week, he and his assistant bring in between 100 and 150 people. And every week they send out between 350 and 400 summonses, drawing from a list of more than 50,000 registered voters and drivers.

Since the system changed in May from a month to a week of jury duty, the number of summonses issued has quadrupled.

But Merson and his aide, Sandy Dalton, say they are keeping on top of the new system and trying to accommodate people who need to reschedule their service.

"This is not punishment to come to jury duty," Dalton says.

Mail sits in stacks in their office on the top floor of the courthouse. Nearly half the letters are requests to be excused or have service postponed -- because of vacation dates, lack of child care or, as one crafty first-year law student wrote: "My incomplete and garbled understanding of the law will adversely affect my judgment in any legal process."

Every Monday and Wednesday morning, it's show time.

Starting about 8: 30 a.m., Merson greets the jurors as they begin to trickle into the courthouse, reading material in tow.

Standing before them in the large jury assembly room -- almost as if he is on stage -- he explains the jury process, peppering his talk with jokes. When someone asks for the slip to give to his employer, Merson tells a story about a man who forged the slip, saying he had served 34 days on a jury -- something that has never happened in Howard County.

RTC "Are you having fun yet?" he asks the group midmorning. "It's all downhill after the 10 bucks."

Andrea Vespoint, a Columbia resident, said she had dreaded jury duty, the gray tediousness of being an anonymous number, but Merson's style made the time pass easily.

"He made things a lot more pleasant than they otherwise would be," Vespoint said.

While jurors wait in the large assembly room in the back of the courthouse, Merson darts in and out to talk to clerks and judges and ascertain who is going to need some of his charges and where.

Dozens of trials are scheduled each week, but only about four are held. The others end in plea bargains, settlements or postponements -- usually at the last minute.

"It's like a three-ring circus," Merson says outside a courtroom waiting for a jury selection to be completed. "Between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. is bedlam."

Merson's sense of humor serves a dual purpose, he says. It helps him break the ice with jurors and keeps him sane.

"You've got to laugh," he says.

On this day, a batch of some 25 jurors is called into one judge's courtroom and then dismissed altogether when the defendant opts to let the judge decide the outcome of the battery case.

Then there is the 20-minute debate over which judge is going take on a rape trial.

"You never know what is going to happen," Merson says with a smile. "I was ready to send them over there and then I did a 180-degree" change.

Born in Ellicott City, Merson practically grew up in the courthouse. His mother was secretary to former Judge J. Thomas Nissel, and he still remembers the phone number to the old courthouse. His wife, Melanie, is the secretary of Judge Diane O. Leasure. He worked as a courtroom clerk for nine years before getting his present job.

And the courthouse may be where Merson is forever remembered. One woman brought him a lasagna after he let her leave early from jury duty.

Because he calls in as many as 200 residents a week, Merson says, every time he steps out of his house people recognize him.

"I go to the mall, I go to the fair. Everybody knows me," he says. "They say, 'There's that jury guy.' "

Pub Date: 8/16/96

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