Cohen

By STEVE COHEN

CHARLESTON -- We are all familiar with the Constitutional guarantee to trail by a jury of our peers. It is brilliant principle of democracy to reflect the conscience of a community.

This cornerstone of our judiciary is often seen as a burden, however, when we are actually summoned to jury duty. A recent national survey estimates fewer than half of those summoned for jury service actually report. We could care less. We're too busy.

An active member of the American Bar Association put it aptly, "Everybody likes jury duty, just not this week."

Spending a day, or sometimes more, in a courtroom jury box is often considered to be more of an inconvenience than a civic duty. But how often are you outraged by a verdict in a civil justice dispute, for example?

Remember that $67 million lawsuit over a lost pair of trousers? That hardworking immigrant couple who owned that dry cleaners were saddled with a six-figure bill to defend themselves against a bloodthirsty plaintiff.

Take another recent case which got international attention from right here in West Virginia –- that $10 million suit against a Morgantown eatery for allegedly adding cheese to a burger that was supposedly ordered without it. Or the high school grad in West Virginia who sued for $1 million-plus claiming he was "unprepared for life."

Jury service is the forum in which we can exercise our sense of what is just and what is not. Shirking this responsibility with lame and flimsy excuses is an injustice in itself. West Virginia Circuit Court Judge Arthur Recht has a reputation for being understanding with those summoned for jury duty but must postpone their service. But he has no tolerance for those who ignore their summons altogether. He is known to issue contempt of court citations and impose fines of up to $1,000.

To be sure, our courts must address the reasons why so many eligible jurors do not participate in the trial process. It is important that juries include the perspectives of those who understand the complexities of issues between parties. Service loopholes must be tightened. Only those with a genuine hardship should be excused from jury duty.

Citizens should have some flexibility in scheduling their service. Employees should have protection from adverse action in the workplace. Jurors should be fairly compensated.

Our neighbor, Maryland, recently tripled pay to jurors who sit for a trial of more than five days. Recent reforms in Ohio allow those called for jury duty to reschedule within six months and employers there cannot count jury service toward vacation or sick time. Small firms there with fewer than 25 employees are granted an exemption if more than one employee is called for jury duty at the same time.

This past year marked the issuance of a commemorative stamp by the U.S. Postal Service, a Jury Duty stamp with the image of a diverse group of 12 representative jurors in silhouette. It serves as a reminder of our important role to promote fairness in our system of justice.

Cohen is executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse. Visit the group's Web site at www.WVJusticeWatch.com.

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