For years, the citizens of Dallas County could ignore a jury summons without facing any consequences. But that changed on July 18, when a new Jury Services Court issued four show-cause contempt orders to people who allegedly failed to show up to perform their civic duty on more than one occasion.

Jury Services Court is a pilot project started in June by Dallas County’s 13 district court judges to boost the low response rate to jury summonses. “We realized that our response rate for jury duty is crappy,” explains 191st District Court Judge Gena Slaughter, who issued the four show-cause orders.

Slaughter, who presides over the Jury Services Court, says, “For every 100 jury duty notices we send out, we actually get 20 warm bodies in chairs eligible for jury duty. We have a lot of people ignoring them.”

Slaughter says that while it’s “irritating” when judges do not have enough jurors to start civil trials, it’s even more of a problem in the criminal courts where speedy trials are required. She estimates the county wastes $150,000 a year mailing jury summonses to people who don’t respond.

“The fact is that we’re judges and we’re sworn to uphold the law. And if we know people are ignoring the law and we’re allowing them to do that, it’s an ethical and legal issue for us,” Slaughter says.

Problems can arise when too many venire members are struck for cause or are excused for hardship reasons, says litigator Bill Sims, a partner in the Dallas office of Vinson & Elkins. It is not uncommon to run out of prospective jurors for a new venire panel.

“It costs everybody involved. It’s a complete waste of time and additional money. You’ve got to start over the next day,” Sims says. “If you lose a panel, you ought to be able to get another panel up right away. I applaud what the judges are doing because it’s a needed step because people just think they can ignore a summons.”

Dallas County hopes to boost “jury yields” — the number of people who respond to jury summonses — by letting people know that if they skip jury duty, they’ll have to answer to a judge and possibly face a fine of up to $1,000, Slaughter says.

Under the pilot program, the process goes like this: The Jury Services Department issues a notice to some people who do not respond to a jury summons. Slaughter notes that the court doesn’t have the budget or staff to issue such notices to everyone who fails to appear for jury duty. Those who receive the notice are summoned to the Jury Services Court, where they must explain their absence to a judge and reschedule their jury service date. If they do not show up for the rescheduled date, they are issued a show-cause order to appear in court to explain why they should not be held in contempt and fined.

“The first time you don’t show up, we chew them out.And they are allowed to reschedule,” Slaughter says. And if they fail to show up at the rescheduled date, they are issued a show-cause order in which they have to explain why they shouldn’t be fined, she says. “[T]his is the first time we have issued contempt orders.”

There already is evidence that Dallas County is increasing its jury yields in the two months the program has operated, says M. Anne Brabham, jury services manager for Dallas County. The jury yield in Dallas’ civil courthouse has increased from 20 percent to 25 percent while the jury yield in Dallas’ criminal courthouse has risen from 20 percent to 22 percent, she says. Nationally, major urban counties have a 40 percent jury yield on average, Slaughter says.

“The word is starting to seep out in the community, and people are showing up,” Brabham says of Jury Services Court. She says the pilot program is modeled after a similar one in El Paso County, which has boosted its jury yield to over 80 percent.

“I don’t think I’ll ever get up to 80 percent, but I should be close to 40 percent” jury yield, Brabham says of Dallas County.

She says that the Dallas County “jury wheel” — the list of people to whom the county sends jury summonses — is made up of Texas drivers’ license records, Texas identification cards and voter registration records.

Slaughter estimates 15 percent to 20 percent of summonses don’t reach the addressee because they no longer live there.

El Paso County started its Jury Duty Court 13 years ago, after it saw its jury yield plummet to 17 percent, says Mike Izquierdo, executive director for El Paso County’s Council of Judges. Before sending jury summonses, the county mails prospective jurors forms that ask them whether they are U.S. citizens and if they have a felony criminal record, among other things, says Izquierdo, who oversees Jury Duty Court. Combining Jury Duty Court, which fines jurors who repeatedly ignore jury summonses, and summoning “prequalified” jurors has boosted the county’s jury yield significantly, he says.

“We’re running 90 percent because there is a consequence” for not showing up for jury duty, he says.

“We keep pushing the envelope to get a hold of people by prequalifying them and getting them in here. We respect that they’re trying to do their civic duties,” Izquierdo says. “We try not to treat them like criminals, but we do try to get their attention.”

Marty Lowy, judge of Dallas County’s 101st District Court, visited El Paso’s Jury Duty Court before Dallas started its pilot program.

“They were very efficient. And they were not harsh, but they are very consistent that this is something that’s enforced. One of the things we brought back from El Paso [is] the first time you are summoned you are not fined or punished, but you are required to reschedule. And if you reschedule and if you don’t show up . . . then the consequences become more severe.”