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Monday, July 7, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Worry Duty -- When The Jury Summons Arrives, It's Those With Secure Incomes Who Answer - And Employers With Full-Pay Policies Who Foot The Bill

Seattle Times Business Reporter

When a handful of her employees received jury-duty notices, Edie Hilliard was happy to let them serve and collect their full salary at the same time.

Jury duty is a civic responsibility, and every citizen should respond to the call of the court, Hilliard reasoned. Telling her employees to survive on the $10-a-day jury stipend seemed mean-spirited.

But about three years ago, Hilliard said, things started to get out of hand.

Since then, half of the 43 employees at her company, Broadcast Programming, have been summoned, nine of them more than once. In mid-June, one employee was serving on a jury when two others received summons. Broadcast Programming workers have spent 49 days sitting in the jury box during the past three years.

"It just seems extraordinary that we've received so many," said Hilliard, president of Broadcast Programming, a Seattle-based company that sells programs to radio stations.

Hilliard isn't the only employer questioning how jurors are selected. Plenty of others protest the number of summonses issued to their workers and wonder if they are being unfairly burdened by the district, municipal and federal courts.

The answer is both yes and no, said Dale Ramerman, presiding judge of King County Superior Court.

Potential jurors are taken randomly from lists of registered voters. Three years ago, the court began selecting people who held valid driver's licenses. No particular person or business is

targeted to serve.

But workers who don't get paid by their employers for the time they spend at the courthouse appear for duty far less than those who do, and that means businesses that pay their employees are taking up the slack.

"We have a high rate of no-shows, and those companies who pay their employees end up carrying a bigger burden," Ramerman said. "That's a concern of mine."

The average length of a criminal trial in King County lasts about two days. That may not seem like long, but it's enough to cause some real headaches, Hilliard said.

Although jury duty hasn't cost her company sales, client service suffers and there's significant overtime, she said.

With the average King County resident earning about $29,000 annually, the estimated cost to employers for jury duty so far this year would be about $3 million if each of the 13,400 people who showed up at the courthouse stayed for the minimum of two days.

To ease the burden on Hilliard's company and others, Ramerman wants to propose state legislation requiring employers to pay for up to 10 days of jury duty every year.

"When a company pays someone's wages if they get a summons, they are more likely to respond," he said. "I'd like to see a law so it wouldn't fall on employers who pay for jury duty and have a disproportionate share of the weight."

Tennessee, Nebraska and Alabama require employers over a certain size to pay the salaries of their workers. In Connecticut, Massachusetts and Colorado, employers pay for the first three days of jury duty. After that, the courts offer a $50-a-day stipend. While judges and legal experts support the idea of making employers pay, such proposals aren't always popular with lawmakers.

"Mandating employers to do something is not something legislators like to do," said Tom Munsterman, director of the Center for Jury Studies at the National Center for State Courts in Arlington, Va.

"It's very hard for day laborers and domestics to get compensation. If those people are getting off, it concentrates jury duty on those who are paying."

Big employers such as Boeing and Starbucks pay employees for jury duty. So do the federal, state and local governments.

As a result, a typical jury in King County usually includes a couple of Boeing workers, a telephone company employee, a few retired people and a couple of teachers, said Ramerman.

Hourly workers are conspicuously absent in most juries, and that's a problem for both employers and court officials who want a group of people who represent the general population.

"We tend to have the middle of the economic scale represented, but my own observation is that we don't have the lower end of the economic scale," said Ramerman.

Taco Del Mar, a chain of 28 burrito restaurants, pays for its salaried employees when they're called in for jury duty. But they're a small part of the company's total work force; only about 20 out of 140. The rest are hourly workers who are not compensated.

Nonetheless, James Schmidt, vice president of Taco Del Mar, said he tries to schedule shifts so that his employees can sit through a trial.

"It can be a real challenge, but I absolutely support jury duty," he said. In the past few years, only three or four employees have asked for schedule changes to go to the courthouse, he added. One asked for a written excuse when he found the company didn't pay.

By law, someone who doesn't respond to a summons can be brought before a judge to offer an explanation and be compelled to serve. In the real world, however, no one goes after scofflaws and there is no punishment, Ramerman said.

As a result, 22 percent of people who received a summons from Jan. 9 to June 23 failed to respond, according to court records.

During that same period, 39 percent were excused from serving. Only 14 percent actually showed up at the appropriate time. The rest were either disqualified or had their summons returned in the mail.

Excuses range from child-care problems to military duty to faulty dentures. Many people call in to say they would be happy to serve on a jury, but can't afford to take time off work, said Bob Percini, jury coordinator for King County Superior Court.

The percentage of people who don't show up at the Regional Justice Center, the new county courthouse in Kent, is even higher, Ramerman said. To avoid no-shows who say Kent is too far to travel, Ramerman wanted to summon jurors to Superior Court and the Regional Justice Center who lived near those courthouses. However, the state attorney general ruled potential jurors must be selected randomly throughout King County.

Again, companies that pay their employees to travel to Kent and sit on a jury are more likely to respond to a summons.

About 1,500 summonses are mailed to potential jurors in King County Superior Court every week. They stay in the pool for two days, and if they're not picked for a trial, they're excused.

On a recent Monday, Mark Dillon took the courthouse elevator to the seventh floor and joined the queue of people responding to a jury summons. Dillon served on a jury several years ago, and he was prepared to serve again. His employer, the Federal Aviation Administration, would pay him at his full salary.

"It seems like the government lets you off work a lot easier," he said.

Darting into an elevator going back downstairs, another potential juror said she just got off the hook.

"There's no way I'm going to Kent," she said as the doors closed. "I couldn't afford to get off work and take $10 a day anyway."

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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