Yellowstone County has more District Court judges than ever before, so the clerk of court is preparing for the biggest jury pool ever.
A year ago, Clerk Terry Halpin's office notified 16,000 people that they had been selected at random for the jury pool. On Wednesday, Halpin's office mailed 24,000 jury pool questionnaires. The higher number in the pool is the result of having two additional District Court judges, Ashley Harada and Colette Davies.
Besides the notices from Yellowstone County District Court, 4,850 jury pool notices have or soon will be sent by Justice Court, Billings Municipal Court, Laurel City Court and Coroner's Court, according to Bernie Wahl, the deputy District Court clerk in charge of juries. Wahl and Halpin hope people receiving jury pool mailing will read the letter carefully, fill out and return the brief questionnaire promptly. They also want to allay anxieties about jury duty.
First thing to know is that of the many people in a jury pool, relatively few are chosen to actually serve. In the 12 months ending Aug. 31, 2018, Yellowstone County District Court conducted 21 jury trials. There been 21 District Court jury trials since the present pool of 16,000 was selected for the 12 months beginning Sept. 1, 2018. That means 252 people out of the pool of 16,000 have actually served on a jury in the past 8 1/2 months.
Each trial requires 65 to 125 people to be called for jury selection. Usually, all but 12 will be excused before noon.
Wahl often hears from people who are upset that their name was chosen for the jury pool because they hoped to avoid duty by not voting. All eligible Montanans should register and vote. Shirking that responsibility won't get you out of jury duty. The jury pool is drawn from lists of registered voters, licensed drivers and holders of Montana state identification cards. State law requires the Secretary of State Office to provide registered voters lists by county and city to the Office of Court Administrator every April. Likewise, the Department of Justice is required to furnish the court administrator with lists of licensed drivers and people with state IDs. The lists are reviewed to eliminate duplication.
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A random computer program pulls the list of jurors for that year for the county and city courts, according to Beth McLaughlin, Montana court administrator in Helena.
If you are among the 24,000 Yellowstone County residents who receive a letter from the Yellowstone County District Court Clerk this week, please read the letter and follow the directions. People who will be in school or out of town may be temporarily excused as explained on the questionnaire. People who have a permanent disability that renders them unable to serve will need to have their doctor send a note to the clerk's office.
Getting out of jury duty may seem like a good idea for busy people, but those of us who are able to serve ought to be willing. Imagine if you were the person accused of a crime or party to a civil lawsuit. Wouldn't you want someone like yourself on your jury? If good people could just opt out, who would be jurors?
Remember: Those jury questionnaires are for the year starting Sept. 1. In addition to state, county and city courts, the U.S. District Court sends out post cards to people selected for its two-year jury pool.
The letters and post cards don't necessarily mean you will be picked for a jury. If you are chosen, be proud that you are helping to deliver the constitutional guarantee of the right to trial by jury.