People will say almost anything to get out of jury service.
“It would hurt my health.”
“I’m not subject to the laws of the United States.”
“My boss refuses to pay me for my time off of work.”
“One person called in and wanted to be exempt because they were a chronic smoker,” Karen Spencer, the Sedgwick County District Court jury coordinator, said with a chuckle.
Once, a disgruntled man sitting through jury selection in Chief Judge James Fleetwood’s courtroom left during a lunch break and didn’t return. So the judge sent a sheriff’s deputy to the man’s job, only to learn he had quit and moved.
“That’s probably the most severe case of somebody that would do anything to get out of jury service,” Fleetwood said. “But there are very, very few of those.”
Despite the grumbling that courthouse clerks and judges hear, staff members at both federal and state courthouses in Wichita say the bulk of people summoned for jury service call in or show up as ordered.
Since January 2013, only about 10 percent of the 1,634 people summoned ignored their federal jury summons, according to data collected by The Eagle.
Fewer than 6 percent of the nearly 80,000 potential jurors called by Sedgwick County District Court skipped.
“We have a pretty good turnout” for jury service compared to some other states, Fleetwood said. “Most people that show up will fall in that category where if I had an opportunity, there’s probably other things I would like to get done. But the majority of them recognize that it is a civil responsibility in a democratic society.”
The question of just who has to show up for jury service – and how many skip – came to light earlier this summer when a Sedgwick County District Court judge was called for jury duty in federal court but missed the first day of a jury trial.
In a scathing response to an order from federal Judge Eric Melgren demanding Michael Hoelscher explain his absence, an attorney for Hoelscher argued his client was barred from serving on a federal jury under U.S. law because of his job.
Ultimately, Melgren excused Hoelscher. But not before pointing out that doctors, police officers and judges – himself included – have honored their jury summons.
“Because I expect jurors who are summoned to hear and decide a case to actually appear, when I was summoned to jury service in state court in Sedgwick County ... I responded and spent the better part of the day in the jury assembly room,” Melgren wrote in his order.
“Indeed, I am aware that all three Preferentially appointed judges in this courthouse have responded to a jury summons. ... We, as well as at least one Magistrate Judge in this Court who responded to a similar jury summons, would never have expected to be exempted from this duty of citizenship.”
Penalties for skipping
Having to go to court to explain your absence is just one of the ways judges get rogue jurors to fulfill their jury service. The documents they issue are called “orders to show cause,” which is what Hoelscher received when he missed reporting as a juror on June 15.
By law, a judge also can impose penalties – such as fines, community service work or jail time – for missed jury service.
Ingrid Campbell, chief deputy for the Kansas division of U.S. District Court, said of the 165 people who skipped jury duty at the federal courthouse in Wichita over the past 2 1/2 years, 22 ended up receiving the “show cause” orders. One had to pay a $50 fine, and 11 were ordered to complete community service, she said.
Show cause orders are equally rare in Sedgwick County District Court, because judges take measures to track down jurors who don’t report as scheduled, Fleetwood said.
“Most people who don’t show up that first call, it’s just a matter of confusion. Or honestly they just forgot to put it on their calendar,” he said. He couldn’t remember any missing jurors receiving fines or community service. But, he said, one man who ignored his summons was ordered to observe an entire jury trial in lieu of spending two weeks in jail.
Among the more common excuses people summoned for federal jury service give are advanced age, caring for a child or elderly person at home, caring for an infirm person and being so essential to a business or community that being away would pose an overwhelming hardship, Campbell said.
County court jurors were most often excused over medical conditions or various hardships, according to the data.
Some people are automatically excused if they receive a summons – breastfeeding mothers, the elderly or the infirm, felons and non-U.S. citizens among them. You also get a pass if you’ve served on a jury within the past year. The law that attorney Stephen Joseph earlier this summer claimed bars Hoelscher from serving on a federal jury exempts active duty military, fire and police officials and government officers “who are actively engaged in the performance of official duties.”
Teachers and business people are the worst offenders when it comes to jury service excuses, said Spencer, the county court jury coordinator. “They like to argue with you” over work, she said.
But that isn’t enough to let them off the hook.
Hoelscher didn’t cast off all of his duties when he was summoned as a federal juror. An e-mail attached to his attorney’s response to Melgren’s “show cause” order showed he met earlier reporting requirements by phoning into the court’s automated call-in system for jurors.
After Hoelscher missed reporting for the jury trial, he told a federal jury clerk he acted “in good faith” and didn’t think he was supposed to report on the day in question. But, Melgren noted, he never asked to be excused from service under the law his attorney cited.
Joseph, his attorney, wrote in his response to Melgren’s order: “Not realizing that he is barred by law from serving on a federal jury,” Hoelscher “engaged me this morning to represent him on the show cause order. I immediately informed him that sitting state court judges are barred from sitting on federal juries by federal statute and the jury plan for the District of Kansas, not to mention the United States Constitution.”
He said he was “stunned” when Hoelscher said that he’d been summoned and showed him the judge’s order to explain the absence.
According to court documents, Joseph also made an “irate phone call” to Melgren’s staff about the order and sent an e-mail to the court’s chief “threatening to subpoena numerous officials of this court to demonstrate their ‘ignorance of the law’ and warning that ‘when I go to court, I go to win.’ ”
In his order releasing Hoelscher from jury service, Melgren called the reaction “unprecedented” and “astonishing.”
He also noted that the day Hoelscher was scheduled to go to court, a doctor showed up and asked to be excused “at the appropriate point in the proceeding” because his emergency room was short-staffed – something, the order suggests, Hoelscher also could have done.
“If ... Judge Hoelscher wants to insist upon being exempt from jury duty, then I will honor the exemption the law provides to him,” Melgren wrote. But, he said, “I do so sadly, believing that judges (and other public officials) should to the fullest extent possible comply with the laws with which we expect others to comply; but I do so with the confidence that most of us do.”
If you’re summoned
Put the summons in a place where you can see it. Forgetfulness is one of the more common reasons people don’t show up to court, according to Sedgwick County District Court Chief Judge James Fleetwood.
The Sedgwick County Courthouse (state court) is at 525 N. Main in Wichita. The Wichita branch of the federal U.S. courthouse is a block east at 401 N. Market. The phone number for the jury clerks at the county courthouse is 316-660-9101. You can reach a federal jury clerk at 316-315-4218.
You’re eligible to serve on a jury if you:
▪ Are 18 or older and are a U.S. citizen
▪ Live in Sedgwick County for Sedgwick County District Court or in the judicial district for a year for federal court
▪ Haven’t been ruled legally incompetent
▪ Understand English
▪ Have no felony convictions for the past 10 years for state court or no felony convictions unless your civil rights have been restored for federal court. In federal court, you also can’t be facing felony charges punishable by a year or more in prison.
▪ Are a registered voter or hold a Kansas driver’s license or an ID issued by the state Department of Motor Vehicles; you’re part of the pool of Kansans who may be called to jury service in a state court. Federal court generates its pool of potential jurors using the state’s voter registration list.
You may be excused from jury service if you:
▪ Have served within the past year in state court or in the past two years in federal court
▪ Are a breastfeeding mother or are essential in the care of young children or the elderly (the latter doesn’t always work)
▪ Are physically or mentally infirm
▪ Are older than 70
▪ Are facing a significant personal hardship or if you’re so essential to your business that it would close without you there
▪ Can’t focus on testimony or evidence presented at trial or can’t set aside personal biases
▪ Are needed elsewhere for public welfare, health or safety. (But don’t count on this one getting you excused all of the time; even emergency room doctors and law enforcement officers are called to serve.)
▪ In federal court you are exempt from serving on a jury if you are active duty U.S. military, are a member of a police or fire department or are an on-duty public officer in the executive, legislative or judicial branches of government.
▪ You may be able to postpone your jury service to a later date if you have a vacation or other important event, like a wedding, scheduled. Make those requests in advance.
You’ll get paid:
▪ $10 per day, plus $2 for lunch daily, and 57 cents for mileage in Sedgwick County District Court if you have to report to the courthouse.
▪ $40 per day if have have to report in person, plus a reimbursement for parking fees and mileage. If you’re there for more than 10 days, you’ll get $50 per day. If you live 60 or more miles away and need lodging, you may qualify for a nightly subsistence fee.
▪ Nothing if you’re a stand-by juror. Also, if you’re a federal employee called for federal jury service, you get nothing.
Jury service, by the numbers
79,906: total potential jurors summoned in Sedgwick County District Court from January 2013 through June
$875,857.63: amount spent on jurors, including postage for summons
16.49 percent: summons letters returned undelivered
5.81 percent: summons ignored
1,328: voicemails, e-mails and faxes court clerks received from potential jurors in May (that’s about average)
179: felons excused from jury service
791: non-U.S. citizens excused
36.9 percent: people summoned who weren’t used