Many people summoned to jury duty still don't show up for service months after a state law was enacted that no longer recognizes the classic excuses and allows for stiff fines and even the arrests of those who do not comply.
"It seems like people are kinda slacking off again," Hamilton County jury clerk Stormi Rogers said Friday. "They don't understand that you just can't call in any excuse anymore. You have to show up."
Hamilton County Circuit Court Clerk Paula Thompson said there was a rush of people reporting right after Jan. 1, when the new law was enacted. She attributed the high compliance to the initial publicity about the law, but agreed that jury attendance is starting to fall off again.
Three hundred people are summoned to court in the county every two weeks, out of which officials expect to impanel at least 96 people who have a duty to remain on-call as jurors in that time frame. Ms. Rogers said that on several occasions over the past several months court personnel were able to impanel only about 70 people, which often isn't a big enough pool of potential jurors for a week such as the most recent, during which three trials were scheduled in Criminal Court alone.
On Sept. 1 and 15, more than 50 people ignored the summons outright, Ms. Rogers said.
Before Jan. 1 the problem was worse, officials say, when those who didn't show up for jury duty faced few, if any, penalties, and flimsy excuses often were accepted.
"People used to get excused for reasons that were based more on convenience than necessity," Hamilton County Circuit Court Judge Marie Williams said.
The law makes most of those excuses no longer legitimate but allows everyone an opportunity to postpone service for 12 months to accommodate scheduling difficulties. Exemptions for certain professions such as doctors or lawyers also no longer exist, all in an effort to make people more accountable and juries more representative of the community, officials said.
Judges now can fine people up to $500 for not showing up, although the most anyone has been fined in Hamilton County since the first of the year is $22, officials said.
Still, Hamilton County court personnel showed in May that they were serious about enforcing the new jury law when officials made plans to issue arrest warrants for two people who had failed to respond to two letters and then a summons hand-delivered by a sheriff's deputy.
Ms. Rogers said the citizens ultimately never were arrested after their excuses could be verified -- one could not serve because he no longer was a resident of Hamilton County and the other had a valid medical excuse.
"But it shouldn't have had to get to that point," she said.