Bar News - June 21, 2013
Jury Selection Enters the 21st Century: Superior Court Jury Software to Launch in August
By: Kristen Senz
Instead of spending hours at the courthouse poring over handwritten questionnaires, attorneys preparing for superior court jury trials will soon find juror information in their email inboxes.
The superior court expects to have its new electronic jury management system operational in August. Under the electronic system, after a pool of prospective jurors fills out questionnaires online, jury clerks will collect them into one long electronic file and send them to attorneys in portable document format (PDF).
Initially, judicial branch officials had hoped attorneys could access the files online using individual passwords, but concerns over privacy and the capabilities of the selected software vendor, Courthouse Technologies, resulted in the use of PDFs, explained Dan Morin, senior development manager for the NH Judicial Branch.
While the convenience of juror information being sent by email might be the most visible and welcome change for attorneys, the new system also updates and automates other elements of jury selection and the interactions between jurors and the court.
In addition to bringing it online, the court has centralized jury administration, said Chief Justice Tina Nadeau. Under the new system, superior court jury management will take place at Hillsborough County Superior Court-South in Nashua, where two full-time jury clerks will oversee jury management for the state's 11 superior courts.
The court initially estimated that this change would save a total of two full-time jury administrator salaries, but has since opted to reconfigure those jobs instead of eliminating them. Superior court jury administrators will be responsible for more case-processing duties starting in August, Nadeau said, adding that staffing levels might be adjusted post-implementation, depending on workloads and system functionality.
Under the new system, potential jurors will receive a notice in the mail with a jury candidate number and instructions for logging into the online system. Mailings for multiple courts will be combined, cutting down on postage costs, Morin said. Mirroring federal court policies in New Hampshire (see related story), the superior court will only send paper questionnaires to prospective jurors who are unable to access the Internet.
Jury candidates will be able to submit requests for excusal online or over the phone. Excusal requests that require review by a judge can be flagged by a jury clerk. Judges who choose to access the system directly will be able to review and respond to excusal requests electronically, Morin said. Rulings can be sent by mail or email, he said, depending on the prospective juror's preference.
The new system also incorporates an automated phone system known as Courthouse IVR, which will allow jurors to call in, enter their candidate numbers and leave voicemail messages explaining their reasons for requesting excusal from jury duty. The phone system can also make multiple automated calls, notifying a whole pool of jurors, for example, when a court is closed due to bad weather.
When prospective jurors arrive at the courthouse, the jury clerk will scan a barcode printed on each juror's summons, enabling court staff to easily track how many jurors have checked in and those who have yet to show up. The courthouse software can also randomly select jurors to hear a case, as well as the alternates, using sophisticated and proven algorithms, Morin said.
Once a jury is empaneled, the jury administrator will create a "panel package" containing the seating chart, questionnaires and potentially other information about the jurors on the panel. The clerk will immediately share the panel package with the attorneys in the courtroom, either via email (which will be more accessible to attorneys in about a year, when Wifi is expected to be available in all courts) or on a portable computer that Morin described as a hybrid tablet-laptop with an adjustable screen.
For Morin, the launch of the new electronic jury management system is bittersweet. He was the one who wrote the original code for the jury selection software that New Hampshire's superior courts are still using today.
"I wrote it when I was 24," he said. "That was 25 years ago."
During the early part of the summer, court officials and others on the jury management team are continuing to meet with the vendor to iron out the final details of the system. A group of attorneys is working with court officials to decide what information will be included in the "panel packages," Morin said. Training sessions for court personnel will take place in July, with the statewide rollout of the new system expected sometime in August.
The total cost of the new superior court jury management system was about $500,000, with about $400,000 of that paying for the software and about $100,000 going toward hardware and training.