Being the town drunk used to be a guaranteed way to dodge jury duty.
A panel of jury commissioners, chosen for their community knowledge, is allowed under Tennessee law to winnow from jury lists anyone they know to be a “habitual drunkard” or felon.
Jury commissioners still are active in the state, although some in the judicial community say it is an archaic system.
Legislation awaiting a vote in the Tennessee House this week drastically would revamp the jury selection process. The Tennessee Senate unanimously approved a similar bill last week.
“It was the good ol’ boy system when there wasn’t a big population and everybody knew everybody,” said Bradley County Circuit Court Clerk Gayla Miller. “It was just a tradition that was handed down from clerk to clerk to clerk, until someone finally realized we need a new system.”
The proposal would abolish the jury commission system and allow court clerk staff to screen jurors. Among other changes, it also would raise the fine for skipping jury duty from $25 to $500, although all but $50 will be suspended if the individual completes jury service.
Under the bill, no longer would firefighters, doctors, National Guard members, the disabled and elderly automatically be exempt from jury service. Instead, local court clerks and judges would be allowed to rule on hardship exemptions and give potential jurors up to 24 months to arrange a time when they can serve.
“It makes the jury system more representative of our community, which is what the jury system is supposed to be,” said state Sen. Dewayne Bunch, R-Cleveland, the bill’s sponsor in the Senate. “All of us can pick a time we can serve in the next 24 months.”
WHAT IT MEANS
Tennessee House bill 3638 and Senate bill 3839 would:
* Abolish jury commissioners, allow court clerks to screen jurors
* Raise fine for skipping jury duty from $25 to $500
* End jury-service exemptions for some professionals, elderly and disabled
* Allow jurors with hardships to arrange a time of service within 24 months
Source: Tennessee General Assembly
Hamilton County’s jury commission members are:
* Robin Smith, Tennessee Republican Party chairwoman
* Karen McGuffee, UTC professor
* Erskine Peoples, retired
Source: Hamilton County Circuit Court clerk
Hamilton County Circuit Court Clerk Paula Thompson said some parts of the bill concern her, such as a prohibition against using voter registration records to make jury pools. Supporters said using the records discourages people from registering to vote.
But Ms. Thompson said voters make good jurors.
“Those are people that care about what goes on. They speak their mind as to who gets elected,” she said.
State Sen. Tommy Kilby, D-Wartburg, wants to keep the jury commission system. He attached an amendment to the Senate bill last week that would exempt Rhea and Morgan counties in his district from disbanding their three-member panels.
“It’s a system that has worked well,” Sen. Kilby said. “These are people that have served for many years, and they know the people in the area.”
But Tom Shipley, a jury commissioner in Rhea County, said the system doesn’t work all that well for him. The panel meets about four times a year to review names of potential jurors. It’s difficult to know whom to strike from the jury list because commissioners rely only on their knowledge of the local community, he said.
“We have no background on these people. I will go over our list and maybe not know a third of them,” Mr. Shipley said.
Jury commissioners in Hamilton County don’t review the list of names. They are paid $50 each quarter to sign a computer-generated list of names and mail it to potential jurors.
“It’s outdated,” said Robin Smith, one of three Hamilton County jury commissioners and chairwoman of the Tennessee Republican Party. “With the advent of computers, there just does not need to be paid people, and people taking time out of their schedule, to sign forms and put them in envelopes.”