When Jim Scott saw a red, white and blue slip in his mailbox, summoning him to jury duty, he felt sick. "I just got a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach," he said. "I thought, ‘Oh God, here we go again.'" He'd been expecting the summons. It had been exactly 90 days since the mailman left the last one - right on schedule.
Scott gets summoned regularly, at least once a year, usually more. During two separate years, Scott was summoned four times. Since moving to Humboldt County from Ohio 23 years ago, Scott said he's been summoned close to 40 times. While he's probably unluckier than most, public records suggest that he's hardly alone.
Anyone with a driver's license or an ID card from the Department of Motor Vehicles, or anyone registered to vote can be selected for jury duty. At the beginning of each year, the county merges the DMV and the voter registration lists to form its jury pool. At the beginning of the 2010-11 fiscal year, Humboldt County's jury pool contained roughly 105,700 names. During that year, the court issued 93,000 summonses.
So odds are, most people in the pool will get called.
Most weeks, the Humboldt County Superior Court sends out 2,000 jury summonses - 425 every Monday through Thursday, and 200 on Fridays. The court sends so many summons out, said Courtroom Services manager Sara Biasca, because more than three-quarters of those summoned either aren't eligible, are excused or don't respond.
Humboldt's summons response rate is slightly less than the statewide average of 30 to 40 percent, said Kristin Greenaway, senior court systems analyst for the California Superior Court system. That could be one reason why some people here feel as though they get summoned frequently. It's not just a problem for people in small counties like Humboldt, however, Greenaway said. Frequent picks like Scott could just be unlucky, she said - it's all up to the computer that chooses the names.
Kate Lehre also wonders whether that computer is biased. She's lived in Humboldt for 30 years, and every year she and her husband both receive jury summons. One friend, meanwhile, hasn't been called for jury duty in eight or nine years of living in Humboldt. Her friend doesn't vote, but has a driver's license.
The computer is great at randomness, but it can't tell when two names belong to the same person, which probably means that a lot of summonses go to people who are supposed to get a break. "If it's Jane E. Doe on your voter registration and Jane Elizabeth Doe on your driver's license, the computer thinks those are two different people," Biasca said. That means that if someone has two names in the pool, they could receive up to four summonses a year.
Frustrated by his frequent summons, Scott called the court in the early 2000s. A court worker told him that he had two names in the pool, and that it would be corrected. Now, he said, the names on the summonses are the same, but they come just as frequently.
Biasca said nobody should be summoned more than twice a year, but unless mismatched names are corrected at the DMV and with voter registration, the problem will recur each year, when those agencies send the court their new lists. People who think they're being erroneously over-selected should call the courthouse, she said.
In order to be eligible in the first place, potential jurors must be 18 years or older. They must be county residents. They must speak English, and must not be a convicted felon. Active-duty police officers are temporarily excused, as are members of the county Grand Jury.
And those people who are summoned and just blow it off? The court sends them a failure-to-appear letter, which warns them that they could be found in contempt of court. Typically, many of the no-shows are people who had moved and didn't receive the summons in time. Those people are given a new court date. People who ignored the summons and are found in contempt of court can be fined, jailed, or both.
Court executive officer Kerri Keenan said, however, that in her 4 ½ years on the job, she's never seen anyone penalized for failing to appear.
"We want people to participate in the democratic process," Keenan said. "We don't want to hit them with a hammer when they don't show up."
The names in the jury pool are always changing. When people call in to check if they need to appear for jury duty, their names are withdrawn from the pool for six months. If they are required to appear at the courthouse, then their names are withdrawn from the pool for one year. If they are selected as a member of a jury, then their names are withdrawn for two years. Because jury summonses are sent out each week, names are withdrawn and re-added to the pool constantly.
Scott lived outside of Humboldt for more than 50 years, and was never summoned once, he said. Less than a year after moving to Eureka, the summonses started. Two decades and dozens of summons later, he's feeling like moving away. There are other factors, he said, but the jury summons is the biggest.
Only around 750 people served on 63 jury trials in 2011 -- less than 1 percent of those summoned. That's little consolation for Scott. "Oddly enough, I have yet to sit on a jury," he said.
He feels that his frequent selection is indicative of a broader problem with the court's selection methods. "Jury service is touted as one of the proud responsibilities of citizens in this country," he wrote in a letter to the county Grand Jury. "Sadly, the jury selection process in Humboldt County has turned a jury summons into an onerous duty and frequent harassment that is endured at best and is to be avoided if at all possible."
The Grand Jury replied that it had no jurisdiction over the jury selection process, and returned his letter.