Lincoln County Court had an unusually high number of jurors not show up for their civic duty in December 2015. For that month, 11 jurors had to answer for failing to appear – twice.
After the first failure to appear for jury duty, the court issues a “polite reminder,” Lincoln County Circuit Court Judge Jay Tlusty noted. That reminder letter advises the juror that they could be ordered to pay a sanction for failing to appear. It also reminds the juror that they must call in at the required times to see if they need to report for duty.
“That takes care of 95% of people,” Tlusty said.
“It’s rare to get everybody to show up,” Lincoln County Jury Clerk Dawn Dunbar added, “but that first letter normally works.”
A second failure to appear for jury duty results in a summons to appear in court to explain why you missed jury duty. Failing to show up for that court date could result in a fine of up to $500 for each time missed. Lincoln County typically imposes a $40 sanction for each day missed.
“The second contact is delivered by a sheriff’s deputy,” Dunbar said.
If they appear in court and have a reasonable explanation why they didn’t show up for jury duty, they will be put into the jury pool for a future month.
“We’ll find a month that works for them,” Tlusty said.
All those who didn’t show up in December have been put into the jury pool of another month this year.
“The people that did show up (for their court appearance) were very respectful and understanding that they did have a civic duty to show up for jury duty and are prepared to do that in 2016,” Tlusty said.
Every quarter, the Clerk of Courts office sends out 500 questionnaires to prospective jurors. The questionnaires ask questions that will determine whether a person is actually eligible to serve and what special accommodations they might need.
Of the 500 questionnaires sent out every three months, maybe five percent come back as having moved out of the county and are unable to serve. For February, 110 summonses were sent out. After excusals, Dunbar expected to have 90-95 people in this month’s jury pool.
If chosen for a particular month’s duty, jurors receive a list of potential trial dates and the instructions for calling in.
The jury duty instructions for March will be mailed out in mid-February. That gives people a couple of weeks to let the court know that have a conflict.
“If you have an issue with your jury duty for that month, write to Judge (Rob) Russell,” Tlusty said. “We’re fairly lenient in granting requests.”
Those with health issues or who serve as a caregiver for someone, for example, can be excused from jury duty. People who have a temporary conflict such as a business trip can have their jury duty moved to a different month. Jurors can also be excused for specific days in the month where they have a conflict, Dunbar noted.
“A person can be permanently excused, moved to a future month or excused for specific days,” Tlusty said, “as long as the prospective juror gives it their prompt attention. We do understand that jury duty can be an inconvenience in both your personal and business lives,” Tlusty added, “but it’s been part of our judicial systemf for over 200 years and it is a system that has worked. We kind of all share that responsibilty.”
Serving jury duty isn’t as huge an obligation as one might think. In 2015, there were only 24 days that jurors were called to the Lincoln County Courthouse. In 2014, that number was 17 days.
“The chance of actually serving on a jury in that month is pretty small,” Tlusty said. In 2015, some months had as few as one day that jurors reported to the courthouse, and others as many as six.
Once a juror reports for five days in the month, their jury duty is considered fulfilled. And, once you’ve served your month in the jury pool, you won’t have to serve again for at least four years.
“That’s one month out of every four years that you can be called,” Dunbar said.
Dunbar will typically call in 30-40 jurors for most cases. Twelve to 14 of those jurors will be sworn in to actually serve on the jury.
“The reason we call in 30-40 is we live in a small community, people know people (involved in court cases), or are related to people, so that might be a reason to not serve,” Dunbar said.
The judge and attorneys vet the jurors, excusing anyone they feel can’t be impartial in the case. Very rarely will the court be left with too few jurors to make a full jury.
“It’s happened twice in my 19 years that we couldn’t get enough for a jury,” Dunbar said.
In those rare situations, the judge can order the sheriff to pull people off the street to serve as jurors. The court would still have to determine if those people are qualified to serve.
“It’s never happened, but we’ve come close,” Tlusty said.
The vast majority of court cases settle prior to trial.
“We may stack 10 trial on the court calendar for one day and all may settle,” Tlusty said. “A huge percentage of cases settle because the litigants realize jurors will decide their case if they can’t resolve it themselves.”
Of the cases that go to trial in Lincoln County, most last just one day. If they trial goes for multiple days, it’s usually only two. With rare exceptions, jurors are allowed to go home at night, except after deliberation begins.
Jurors receive a $15 per diem each time they are required to report, along with mileage. They also get lunch if they need to stay into the afternoon. The payment is $27 a day to actually serve on a jury. Supper is included if the deliberations go into the evening.
The court gets their list of prospective jurors from the Wisconsin Department of Motor Vehicles. A DMV computer program randomly picks the names. Anyone with a state-issued driver’s license or identification card can be pulled for jury duty. For 2016, Lincoln County requested 3,500 names from the DMV.