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Doing one's civic duty should not be a thing of dread, judges say

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By Lisa King

Have you ever heard the story of the man who threw a party and offered a million dollars or his daughter’s hand in marriage to the man who could successfully swim the length of his pool, which was filled with hungry sharks?

Well, one guest made it, and when he climbed out, dripping, the man asked the guest what he wanted.

“The only thing I want is to know who pushed me into the pool?” the man demanded.

Shelby County Circuit Judge Charles Hickman’s punch line drew nervous laughter as he used the tale to break the ice at the orientation for 100 prospective jurors in January.

“We choose two jury pools a year, one in January and one in the summer,” he said.

Hickman told those seated in the courtroom, who had been called to jury duty, that he knew they all probably felt like the man pushed into the pool, like they didn’t have a choice in the matter.

District Court Judge Donna Dutton said that’s pretty much the case.

“A warrant could be issued for your arrest if you don’t comply, although that’s an extreme case,” she said, adding that people can also be fined or made to do community service if they don’t fulfill their jury duties.

“But people can be excused - and are - all the time; for example I have excused teachers who would have extreme difficulty having to leave the classroom.”

But Hickman said people should not look at jury duty as being “pushed into the pool.”

“It’s a chance to serve your community, and many people feel honor in that,” he said.

Shelby County Attorney Hart Megibben said that even though he totally advocates the jury process, he knows that people are intimidated when they are called, for a number of reasons.

“People fear it and hear horror stories about it, and it’s frustrating to us to see people always trying to get out of it,” he said.

Many people wonder, how are you selected for jury duty?

“It’s my understanding that you’re called according to driver license records, and it’s supposed to be a random process done by computer,” he said.

To serve, one must meet certain criteria, including be at least 18 years old, not have committed a felony and must live in the county where called.

Both circuit and district courts have jury trials, and Megibben, who prosecutes in district court, said the vast majority of jury trials in district court are cases to determine if a person with dementia or mental retardation can handle his or her own affairs.

Circuit court is the realm of the criminal world, as well as some civil cases.

Hickman reminds people that they should remember that judges will work with people if jury duty causes them problems.

“If you have a scheduling conflict, for example, and you let us know in advance, we will excuse you for that day,” he said.

A big reason that people abhor jury duty is because of the inconvenience of having to miss work, and the fear that their employers will not compensate them, Megibben said.

“I agree, the pay [for jury duty] is a joke; it’s ludicrous, it’s like $15 a day,” he said, adding that employers are not required to compensate employees for the time they were unable to work due to jury duty, though most do.

But most people don’t realize that being on the jury roster does not necessarily mean they will have to serve everyday.

“Now, in Jefferson County, you go in for two solid weeks, eight hours a day, but here, we just do not have the number of jury trials they have,” he said.

Hickman tried to instill some of that pride in the jurors in January by telling them a little about the history of the jury process, which dates back about 1,000 years in England to King John and the Magna Carta.

Megibben said that premise is why jury selection strives to involve people from all walks of life.

And because it pulls from all walks of life, Megibben urges people to serve, because not only is it the right thing to do, but you might even enjoy it.

“It gives people a look at what goes on in that courthouse other than just getting your driver’s license or paying your taxes,” he said.

“It’s your way to make sure that justice is served,” said Shelby County Sheriff’s Deputy Jason Rice.