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Bar News - June 21, 2013

From Wooden Wheel to Worldwide Web: Federal Court Increases Jury Automation


Related Links
  • Jury Selection Enters the 21st Century: Superior Court Jury Software to Launch in August
  • iJuror App Is Handy and Visual
The federal court in Concord is moving toward full automation of its jury selection process this year, with remote access to voluntary juror questionnaires for attorneys expected this fall, according to court officials.

In mid-April, the US District Court for the District of New Hampshire started using the newest version of the federal eJuror system, which includes an online juror qualification questionnaire that interfaces with the court’s jury management software, which was implemented several years ago.

This spring, the federal court sent out 5,000 notices to potential jurors throughout New Hampshire via US Mail with instructions for completing the online qualification questionnaire to determine eligibility to serve as a juror. Unlike other federal courts around the country, the New Hampshire court asked jurors to use the online system – even suggesting in the snail-mail notice that those without home computers should visit local libraries. Only those who could not access the Internet were sent paper questionnaires by mail.

The result was that about 50 percent of potential jurors signed on to complete the online questionnaire, which takes about five minutes.

“That 50-percent return rate is now considered the ‘gold standard’ among the nation’s federal court facilities,” said Jim Starr, who has been the clerk at the federal court in Concord for 28 years. “New Hampshire is really setting the pace for the rest of the federal courts.”

Of the remaining 50 percent, 35 percent represented those who still completed forms on line, but required some manual review by court staff for disqualification, excuse or exemption. The remaining 15 percent were either bad addresses, required a friendly reminder, or requested paper copies of the form.

Similar to the system the NH Superior Court plans to roll out this summer (see related story on page 1), the federal court communicates with potential jurors using an automated telephone system to collect and deliver messages.

Cathy Dube has been jury administrator at the US District Court for the District of New Hampshire for the past 24 years. Within the next two years, Dube said, the federal court jury system is expected to become fully automated, from qualifying, to summonsing, to payment. “In probably two years, it will all be seamless,” she said.

Before computers, creating New Hampshire’s federal jury “master wheel,” as the master list of potential jurors is known, every four years (after each Presidential Election) was a major undertaking requiring many staff hours. Court staff, bolstered by five temporary staff hired just for jury qualification process, spent weeks sorting through boxes of voter registration records.

After the judge selected a random starting number, staff traversed the voter lists from each city and town, in alphabetical order, counting every 50th name. From that the “master wheel,” an initial random selection of 30,000 names, was created. The court then developed the “qualified wheel,” a list of potential jurors who meet the qualification criteria for jury service.

To qualify, a candidate must be at least 18 years old, an English-speaking citizen of the United States, and a resident of New Hampshire. Convicted felons are also disqualified, unless they have had their civil rights restored. Full-time elected public officials, full-time fire and police officers, and members in active service of the United States are exempt. Anyone age 70 or older can opt out of jury service. Beyond that, the court grants a series of discretionary and non-discretionary excuses on a case-by-case basis. The federal court must have at least 1,000 records in its qualified wheel at all times.

Decades ago, after the so-called “qualified wheel” was created, the names of 200-300 qualified jurors were chosen at random, with names written on cards and placed into a large wooden wheel, similar to the kind used in lottery drawings. The wheel spun around, and jurors’ names were randomly plucked out.

“That’s how we used to create the wheel,” said Starr. “Now, it’s all done online, and it’s so much easier.”

Today, the physical “wheel” is gone, but the word “wheel” is still used to describe the master and qualified lists of potential jurors. In the courtroom, members of the court staff still draw names from a wooden box during final jury selection, but that is strictly ceremonial; the task could just as easily be done – and arguably, done more randomly – by a computer.

“It’s very ceremonial,” Dube said. “We think it’s important to maintain the integrity of what’s going on in the courtroom.”

Because computers have significantly reduced the labor associated with creating lists of potential jurors, the federal court in Concord might, at some point, decide to switch from a four-year jury cycle to a two-year cycle, Starr said. For now, however, the court is focused on preparing its new “qualified wheel,” which will feed jury pools for the next four years.

The court also is developing a database that will enable the voluntary, in-depth questionnaires that potential jurors currently fill out at the courthouse to be filled out and viewed online. Starr said the system, which will enable attorneys to log in with individual passwords to view the questionnaires, could be ready as early as this fall.

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