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Complaints by litigants and lawyers about the increasing difficulty of impaneling enough jurors to address complex criminal and civil cases have led Florida’s top court to ask the public how to improve the state’s jury system. Besides examining juror shortages and trial scheduling problems, the high court wants to hear about the experiences of jurors themselves. “We want to see if there’s something we can do to improve the conditions of jury service,” Florida Supreme Court Justice R. Fred Lewis said in an interview last month. On Jan. 19, Lewis will be at the Hyatt Regency in Miami to attend an unprecedented public hearing seeking input from lawyers and others about their experiences with the state’s jury system. The hearing, to run from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., is sponsored by the state Supreme Court’s work group on standards for jury pool size. It will be held in conjunction with the Florida Bar’s mid-year meeting. Florida’s performance at mustering jurors is dismal. Nationally, 40 percent of those summoned for jury duty show up at the courthouse. But only 30 percent answer the call in Florida, according to information from the state court administrator’s office. “I think that number surprised many people,” Lewis said of the state figure. One possibility to be considered by the court is the wider use of citations and penalties against those who don’t comply with a jury summons. The problem is most acute in Miami-Dade County. In fiscal year 2003-04, fewer than 13 of every 100 people who were summoned actually reported for jury duty. Compliance in Broward and Palm Beach counties also was lower than the national average but was above the state average. Broward was just under 40 percent, Palm Beach just over 30 percent. The information was supplied by the counties to the state. Inadequate funding is at the heart of the problem. Last year, the Legislature trimmed court funding for juror and witness expenses by $600,000, or about 13 percent from previous years. That prompted then-Chief Justice Harry Lee Anstead to issue an October 2003 memo aimed at reducing costs by reducing the number of people called for jury service. To fix the juror shortage problem, state officials are prepared to consider a number of options, including adjusting upward the number of jurors who are summoned for service every week. That could mean Floridians will receive a dreaded jury summons in the mail more often. On Nov. 30, members of the state Supreme Court work group met in Tallahassee, Fla., and considered, among other things, a possible crackdown on citizens who fail to comply with a summons for jury service without a good reason. That might entail the wider use of citations and penalties. Change also may be needed in the way potential jurors are identified and summoned. Justice Lewis said study is needed about the impact on jury pools of a 1998 law that changed the source of potential jurors from county voter registration lists to the state’s driver license list. That law was enacted to achieve a more diverse jury pool. “Does the fact that we’ve changed to drivers’ licenses cause us not to get the paperwork [summoning a juror to service] to the correct address of jurors?” asked Lewis, who is the high court’s liaison to the work group. “Is there more stability of information in voter registration lists?” CONSUMER COMPLAINTS Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Barbara J. Pariente established the 22-member work group by administrative order in September. Leon Circuit Judge Thomas Bateman III chairs the group. Members from South Florida include Chief Palm Beach Circuit Judge Edward H. Fine and Broward Circuit Judge Thomas M. Lynch IV, who is chief administrative judge for the civil division. The group’s purpose is to review existing standards on jury panels and develop recommendations for possible reform. Greg Cowan, a court operations consultant with the state courts administrator in Tallahassee, said state officials hope to raise Florida’s performance on summoning jurors to a par with the national rate. The group is to submit a final report to the chief justice by Aug. 31, 2005. Jury management practices that included establishing standard panel sizes were started in October 1990 on the order of then-Chief Justice Leander J. Shaw Jr. Shaw acted in the wake of legislative budget cuts and rising expenditures for per diem juror fees. Last year, then-Chief Justice Anstead asked the state’s circuit and county judges to bring in an average of 18.3 prospective jurors to start a trial. But complaints soon began to filter in from across the state about the difficulty of complying with the jury size standards. “We started hearing anecdotal information from consumers of the judicial product — both parties and their lawyers — that they were experiencing some difficulties with regard to impaneling sufficient numbers of jurors,” Lewis said. “The question for us was how do we approach and resolve any problems that may exist.” SOURCE LIST CHANGE The office of the state courts administrator queried officials in all 20 circuits and issued a white paper last May. Among other things, the study reported that the 1998 change in the source list for jurors from voter registration lists to the driver license list had a “mixed impact across the circuits when it comes to adhering to the standard panel sizes.” Miami-Dade and many of the circuits reported that change made compliance with those standards “more difficult,” the report said. Specifically, more prospective jurors were being summoned who were not U.S. citizens, lacked sufficient English language skills, were convicted felons, had pending charges or warrants against them, or were deceased. Other circuits, however, said any change wrought by the court’s recent reliance on the state’s driver license list was minor. Some of those circuits stressed the benefits of the driver license lists in achieving “a better cross-section of the population to serve as jurors,” the study said. Lewis said even if it’s determined that the switch to the driver license list has caused a problem with seating juries, it doesn’t necessarily portend a return to using voter registration lists.

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