Congratulations to Harris County District Clerk Chris Daniel for his sustained focus on the importance of jury service – or, as it’s usually known, jury duty.
Duty it is, but however inconvenient it might be to take off work, sit around downtown for a few hours and maybe or maybe not get picked for a jury, it’s one of the essentials of a self-governing democracy.
In the words of state District Court Judge Susan Brown, the administrative judge of Harris County’s criminal district courts, “Jury service is the backbone of our legal system. Without concerned citizens who are willing to come down and sit on juries and fairly evaluate cases, our judicial system grinds to a halt.” Daniel, whose office keeps records for about 75 courts, announced recently that the juror appearance rate – the percentage of prospective jurors who appear for service after receiving notices – is 9 percent higher than a decade ago. Despite that progress, about 40 percent of our neighbors who receive notices do not appear for jury service, do not claim a legal exemption and do not reschedule.
Daniel has been pushing public awareness with a media campaign that includes billboards, bus posters and public service announcements on radio and TV. Arguably, the effort has made a difference, although the county probably could do more. Travis County, for example, has won national recognition for its use of technology in the jury system and has seen its rate of no-shows decline to 23 percent. For what it’s worth, jury compensation in Texas was raised a few years ago from $6 a day to $50 (with the higher pay kicking in on the second day of service). Instead of raising compensation even more, a proposal for businesses to pay their employees for jury service may be a more effective approach to encourage participation. A bill sponsored last session by state Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Houston, would have allowed businesses to be compensated through a reduction in the state margins franchise tax. It’s a good idea.