Time marches on in Courthouse

Friday, January 2, 2009

A long-standing system on how people are selected for jury duty is this year being automated and while it will save some money, it does away with a quaint provision in state law.

There was a time when the circuit court clerks in Tennessee might bring their young grandchild to work and have them pull small pieces of paper from a hat, a metal box, or even a rotating drum as if lottery ticket numbers were being drawn.

Tennessee law provided a system for the creation of a master list of prospective jury pool members, but every six months one or several jury pools had to be formed so people could be called to the courthouse for jury selection before a trial.

Those jury panels were selected by a child who could neither read or write, according to the law.

"We always used a child who didn't read or write," Marshall County Circuit Court Clerk Elinor Brandon Foster explained recently. "This was for pulling names from a large metal box."

The reality of it, though, was that sometimes a youngster's attention span might be directed elsewhere and the task became, well, somewhat amusing, and more time consuming.

It's been done here with a large metal box that's not much different from a metal ballot box that would also include a top and hasps for locks.

"The box was here before I got here," Foster said. "I think it was here before Jack Fagan's time" as clerk.

In a nearby county there was a table-top sized drum with a crank and handle so the pieces of paper could be mixed without the touch of a human hand.

Voter registration rolls or property records might have been used at one time. That was succeeded by a list of names of people who have drivers licenses.

State lists of people living in each county are now used and there's a computer program that randomizes the names and produces the required lists of jury panels. It's a result of a law that takes effect this year.

Here, three panels are create. Each one serves for two months.

Previously, names from local lists were typed on the Jury Box Tickets, but there were a series of earlier steps.

In the last couple of decades, juror commissioners would select names of people from a computer printout provided by the Department of Safety, Foster explained.

In Franklin County during the 1980s, then Circuit Court Clerk W.B. Boswell offered a similar explanation, basing it on the same law lost to antiquity and a time when even the major cities' circuit court clerks didn't face the prospect of having, for example, several grand jury panels deliberating dozens if not hundreds of cases each week.

In previous years, juror commissioners would review the list from the Safety Department and select out people who, for example, were known to have moved, died, or were for some other reason unable to serve. Pending military service, pregnancy and incarceration might have been valid reasons. Cantankerous disposition was not discussed as a reason when this report was prepared.

"We'd tell the Juror Commission that we need 250 people for each of three jury panels," Foster explained. Those three jury panels were the groups of people pressed into service for two months at a time.

Those 750 people would then be subject to call during a six month period from January through June, and then another selection process was conducted for another six-month period.

Members of the grand jury are pulled from the jury panels on the first Monday of January and on the first Monday of July. Judges pull the names from those who've been randomly selected for the jury pools.

"We went the old way because we were under the law," Foster said.

"In May, we'll start our process again like we're doing now," she said late last year. But this year, the juror commissioners didn't comb through the lists.

There were three members of the Juror Commission, Foster said. One was from the Chapel Hill area. Another was from the Lewisburg area. The third as from in or near Cornersville.

Juror commissioners had been paid $50 for their work twice a year.

Because they'll not be used again, that expense is seen as a savings for the Marshall County Circuit Court Clerk's office.

Late last year, the Marshall County Commission conducted a non-voting workshop to discuss the county's next budget. It's to start July 1, but in anticipation of lower revenue due to slower economic activity, the commissioners have asked all department heads to find ways to cut their budgets by 10 percent and submit a budget request that will be 10 percent lower than what was granted late last spring when this year's budget was being assembled.

Noting the request and the end of the juror commission, Foster said she's found some other steps to take that will reduce her costs. One is to stop paying local interpreters. They have to be paid with local money, but a state interpreter can be provided by the state government which would pay the fee.

Noting that justice must be administered by the court system, Foster points out that there were 29 jury trials in the Marshall County Courthouse last year. She has no control over that, but there are other ways to adjust the budget by dealing with paperwork for cases that are appealed to a higher court headquartered in Nashville.

Meanwhile, there's absolutely no savings from one aspect of the change. The children who could neither read or write were not compensated for their work.

No record was found to show that the kids even got a lolly pop.