Select Page

Participation in the jury system is key to our justice system. Lately, news reports have shown that many citizens fear they are underrepresented in the justice system, and this underrepresentation causes distrust. This distrust prompted the Texas Legislature to look at grand jury reform in its most recent session and to pass legislation eliminating the “pick-a-pal” system in favor of a more random selection.

As reported by Houston Chronicle Metro columnist Lisa Falkenberg in numerous columns over the past year, replacing the key man system with a more random method is a good start in trying to make grand juries more diverse. But, as Falkenberg has mentioned in her column and on KUHF-FM’s “Houston Matters,” this change alone is likely not enough.

Both the United States and Texas Constitutions guarantee citizens a trial by a jury of their peers, yet many people cannot and do not participate in the system for financial reasons. This skews the economic diversity – and consequently, the racial diversity – of jury panels. Other potential changes for increasing diversity that Falkenberg has suggested include increasing juror pay, increasing education about the role of the grand jury and allowing grand juries to meet on weekends and in the evenings. This last idea – meeting on weekends and evenings – is worth further exploration, not just for grand juries, but for all juries.

Grand juries in Harris County serve for two days a week for two to three months during typical work hours. Petit juries, or juries that hear criminal, family law and civil disputes, also meet during the work week, usually from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The time frame during which the jurors are expected to serve limits the types of persons able and willing to serve on juries.

Three out of five workers are in hourly jobs and more than 10 million Americans are self-employed. That means many citizens cannot participate in jury service because they cannot afford to take the time off from work. Indeed, only 30 percent of people summoned appear for jury duty in Harris County.

Jury service can’t be planned for. When the summons arrives, you have no way of knowing if you will be chosen to serve. And if you are selected, service can start immediately and last for a day or a few weeks.

Allowing some jurors to serve in the evenings and on weekends could alleviate this problem and allow for greater participation. Churches move their hours to serve their congregants. Retailers stay open longer to serve their customers. Employers allow employees to telecommute. Harris County allows voters to vote early and by mail. And city of Houston municipal courts have extended hours until 10 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 8 a.m.–4 p.m. on Saturday.

Extending the hours for jury duty for both grand juries and petit juries will increase public participation and allow for a more diverse jury pool. Expanding off-hours service possibilities within the judicial system could lead to better and more just results. Perhaps this would lead to people having a “jury of their peers” instead of a “jury that is available and financially able to serve.”

Hawkins is a Houston attorney.