Madeline Byrne was making a quick trip to the grocery store to buy some cheese when a sheriff approached her car in the parking lot and slipped something through her open window.
Miss Byrne didn’t get the cheese, but she did get a jury summons.
The 64-year-old woman was ordered to report for jury duty a little more than an hour later at the Lee County courthouse in Sanford, N.C. When Miss Byrne protested, the sheriff told her: “Be there or you’ll be in contempt.”
Courts across the country have been going to extraordinary lengths in recent years to get people to report for jury duty — a cornerstone of democracy and a civic responsibility that many citizens would do almost anything to avoid.
Experts say the shirking of jury duty has been a problem as long as anyone can remember, and it is not clear whether it has gotten any worse in the past few decades. But according to one study, fewer than half of all summoned Americans report for duty, in part because of apathy and busy lives.
“Everybody likes jury duty — just not this week,” said Patricia Lee Refo, a Phoenix lawyer who chaired the American Jury Project, an effort by the American Bar Association to increase jury participation.
Among other efforts across the country to boost participation:
c In Los Angeles County, officials have put ads promoting jury service on the court system’s mail trucks. They read: “Jury Service: You Be the Judge.”
c In New York state, occupational exemptions to jury service have been eliminated, so doctors, lawyers, firefighters, police officers and even judges can no longer get out of jury duty.
c In Florida, court officials use a poster of Harrison Ford, star of the movie “Presumed Innocent,” to encourage people to report for jury duty. The poster was part of a 2005 public service campaign developed by the ABA. “If a picture of Harrison Ford helps us be a more democratic society, then I’m all for it,” said Greg Cowan, a court official in Leon County, Fla.
c In Washington, judges have summoned no-shows to court, where they must explain why they missed their date or face up to seven days in jail and a $300 fine. In Tulare County, Calif., sheriffs go to the homes of no-shows and hand them orders to appear in court to explain themselves.
c Across the country, some courts have tried to make jury service less burdensome by raising daily fees paid to jurors, limiting jury service to one day or one trial, and reimbursing jurors for parking costs.
Nationally, about 46 percent of people summoned for jury duty show up, according to a survey of jury improvement efforts conducted by the National Center for State Courts and published in April. It was the organization’s first such survey.
Many of the rest did not show up or were excused or disqualified for a variety of reasons, including medical or financial hardship, or employment in a job exempt from jury service. Or, they never received their jury summons because it was mailed to an outdated address.
Ann Blakely, the clerk of Superior Court in North Carolina’s Lee County, said sending out sheriffs to find jurors at random is done very rarely, and only when a judge is about to begin a case and there are not enough jurors.
“Not again in my lifetime, I hope,” she said. “We got a lot of complaints from people. ”
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