Monongalia County Circuit Court Judge Russell Clawges shares his thoughts on jury service.
➼ If and when you get called to jury duty in Monongalia County, your friends and co-workers will say one of two things. Some, considering themselves a little too popular with the court, “I’ve only lived in the county for 10 years, and I’ve already been called three times. What’s up with that?” Others, clearly feeling left out, “I was born here, raised my own kids here, and retired here, and I’ve never been called. What’s up with that?”
There is nothing up with any of that, according to the Honorable Russell Clawges, one of three judges for the Monongalia County Circuit Court. It’s just random.
“Our circuit clerk pulls names from a list that’s obtained from the Division of Motor Vehicles, that’s all of those people who have driver’s licenses with Monongalia County addresses, and from the voter registration list for Monongalia County,” Clawges explains. Before his time, the clerk put names on slips of paper and drew them blind from a box, he says; now a computer selects randomly.
“When I talk to jurors, I’ll sometimes say tongue in cheek, ‘If you don’t want to serve, don’t register to vote and give up your driver’s license.’” He’s betting not many people would give up their precious rights to drive and vote in order to avoid their outside chance of being summoned to jury duty.
What is the chance of being summoned? If the circuit clerk’s office summoned a higher-than-normal 300 potential jurors for each of the nine panels it calls in a year, that would be 2,700 people summoned. And if we take that as the share of the 67,000 or so registered voters in the county, the highest chance of being called in a given year is about 4 percent. Include the licensed drivers who aren’t on the voter rolls, and the chance is actually lower than that.
“I’ve lived in Monongalia County, with the exception of the four years I was in the service, all of my life,” Clawges says. “I’ve been a registered voter and I’ve had a driver’s license—I’ve been on the master list for a long time. I’ve been called once.”
When you’re summoned, assuming you aren’t excused for reason of hardship—Clawges, who was chief justice the one time he was called to serve, did not excuse himself, and very few things get anyone excused—you’ll be accountable for a six-week period. You’ll check a phone message once a week to find out whether you are called to show up at court as a potential juror. You may never be called. Even if you are, you may not be selected to actually hear and help decide a case.
But supposing you are selected. If you do become a member of a sitting jury and you have to miss work, the law says your employer cannot penalize you for days away for jury service. “They should be treated as paid days,” Clawges says, expressing his opinion, “but I don’t think the law goes so far as requiring employers to pay.” It doesn’t. The fact is, about 60 percent of workers nationwide are paid by their employers when they’re on jury duty, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Whether your employer pays you or not, the court pays $40 a day. It’ll cover your mileage. It’ll also cover your parking if you park in one of the city’s gated garages.
Clawges ranks the importance of jury duty right up there with registering and taking the trouble to vote, serving in public office, and serving in the military. “Our whole system is based on this concept of cases being decided by a jury of our peers. If I can’t get enough jurors to try a case, the system grinds to a halt,” he says. “In many respects, it’s a pain. It’s an inconvenience. But it’s also a privilege. If you have a case to be tried, wouldn’t you want people like you on the jury?”