One can only imagine Thomas Jefferson and James Madison would be sorely disappointed in Humboldt County.
After all, it was Madison who penned what would become the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing the right to trial by jury for the accused, and it was Jefferson who saw the right as the cornerstone of the young nation's foundation.
"The wisdom of our ages and the blood of our heroes has been devoted to the attainment of trial by jury," Jefferson said. "It should be the creed of our political faith."
But in Humboldt County, that faith seems absent, as a majority of people called for jury service don't bother to respond, much less show up. It's a problem that injects inefficiency into a criminal justice system already struggling to manage large caseloads, potentially jeopardizing some criminal prosecutions and the right of the accused to have their cases heard by a jury of their "peers."
"While our percentage of people who show up to serve is abysmal, it hasn't had a major impact in courtrooms yet," Humboldt County Public Defender Luke Brownfield said, adding that struggles to empanel juries have so far caused delays but not the outright dismissal of any cases. "However, if the percentage stays the same or gets worse, our judicial system will not be able to function. Without jurors willing to serve, the courts will come to a standstill."
Humboldt County has the highest failure to appear rate of summoned jurors in the state. In both 2020 and 2021 — the latest years for which statistics were available from the Judicial Council of California — Humboldt County ranked dead last among the state's 58 counties in juror response rates, with 62 percent of jurors failing to appear for service. And it wasn't close, as Plumas County's 44-percent failure to appear rate in 2021 and Los Angeles County's 37 percent that same year were the only others that came remotely close. The majority of counties reported failure to appear rates below 10 percent and the statewide average was 11 percent.
According to the Judicial Council of California, the policy-making body for the state's courts, the statewide juror-yield average is 59 percent, meaning if an average court sends out 100 summons, it can expect to have a pool of 59 jurors who are able to serve, accounting for undeliverable summons, folks who are disqualified from serving, are excused from serving due to hardships or have to postpone. But in Humboldt County, that yield rate has hovered around 12.5 percent, with officials saying it has sometimes dipped to 7 percent.
While the impacts of this aren't crippling, they are widespread.
Humboldt County Deputy District Attorney Roger Rees says the low response rates mean more prospective jurors need to be summoned for a potential trial — more than four times as many as would be necessary if the county's rates followed state averages. This can cause delays, stretching out the process of empaneling a jury, which can make a prosecutor's job more difficult. For example, Rees says if there's a case in which he wants an expert witness from out of the area to testify on the trial's opening day, that can be difficult to schedule because of the uncertainty of how many jurors will respond to their summons and how long it will take the court to empanel a jury.
Additionally, he says, Humboldt County is relatively small and the same prospective jurors who respond to summons are also often the same residents who follow the news, meaning they're more likely to have read and talked about the cases they're being called to hear.
"It makes it so hard," Rees says.
Brownfield says the low response rates also make it less likely a defendant's case will be heard by a representative cross section of their community. Summons are sent out randomly by the court from a field drawn from registered voters and Department of Motor Vehicle records, with almost all U.S. citizens who are at least 18 years old and residents of Humboldt County eligible to serve.
"Our jurors tend to be older and more Caucasian than the overall population of Humboldt County," Brownfield says. "Those jurors are often more conservative and more likely to convict. The low turnout makes it difficult to truly be tried by a jury of your 'peers.'"
Humboldt County Superior Court Judge Kelly Neel notes that juries also trend more affluent than the general population — a problem, she notes, that is prevalent statewide and not isolated to Humboldt County.
"Jury service only pays a very small per diem, so it can be a hardship for many working folks to take time away from work and not to be fully compensated," Neel says. "Some employers pay a person's salary if they are on jury duty, some pay for only a certain number of days and some don't pay at all."
Because courts are state institutions, the California Legislature sets the rules, and those currently see jurors paid $15 per day of service and a 34-cents-a-mile travel reimbursement, beginning on the second day of their service. Trials, meanwhile, can be over in less than a day or stretch for more than a month. This can create a significant financial hardship in a county where nearly 20 percent of households live in poverty, the median annual household income is more than $30,000 lower than the state average and 14 percent of the population classifies as food insecure.
But poverty alone doesn't explain Humboldt County's dismal response rates, as California's other four counties with the highest poverty rates in the state — Sierra, Lake, Mariposa and Del Norte counties — boast failure to appear rates between 7 percent and 16 percent.
Neel says there are other factors that likely depress Humboldt's response rates.
"Travel wise, our county is just geographically enormous," she says of Humboldt, which spans 4,000 square miles connected by rural roads. "That makes it difficult for our residents across the board who live outside of a 30-mile radius from Eureka, particularly in the winter, where there may be snow and rain impacting travel."
Efforts to make it less of a financial sacrifice for jurors to serve have been slow to progress. Last year, the Judicial Council of California was successful in advocating for Assembly Bill 1981, which made juror mileage reimbursements roundtrip, as the state had previously only reimbursed for one-way travel. The new law also provides for reimbursement of up to $12 in daily public transportation expenses.
Assemblymember Philip Ting, D-San Francisco, also this year introduced Assembly Bill 881, which would create a pilot program with the aim of determining whether "paying certain low-income trial jurors an increased fee for service ... promotes a more economically and racially diverse jury panel that more accurately reflects the demographics of the community." If passed, the bill would specifically create a temporary pilot program in Alameda, Kern, Los Angeles, Monterey and San Francisco counties that would pay jurors whose household income is less than 80 percent of the county's median income $100 a day for their service. The bill passed the Assembly but has been placed in the Senate's suspended file amid disputes over how it would be funded.
With no significant relief on the horizon, county officials are left with few options.
Back in 2016, the court announced it would be ramping up enforcement efforts, with staff personally calling prospective jurors who failed to appear, and that it had considered sending deputies to prospective jurors' homes to "escort individuals to the courthouse for jury service."
Technically, someone who fails to respond to a jury summons can be held in contempt of court, which is punishable by a fine of up to $1,500 and five days in county jail, but court officials have been reticent to take a punitive approach locally.
Neel says an effective enforcement program would take "some extraordinary resources," and it's hard to imagine most would support the thinly staffed sheriff's office redirecting a significant portion of its patrols to follow up on jury summons.
But the lack of participation has Humboldt County's criminal justice system in a precarious position. Brownfield notes that while Humboldt County hasn't seen a criminal case dismissed because the court was unable to empanel a jury to meet statutory deadlines, other California counties already have.
Rees says the simple fact is the entire justice system depends on jurors showing up. They're the ones tasked with deciding who's in the right in a civil squabble between neighbors, and whether the state has proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty of a crime. When more than half decide simply not to show up, it imperils everything.
"We wouldn't be able to do any of our jobs without jurors willing to come in and serve," he says. "Obviously, the Constitution guarantees everyone the right to have a trial in front of a jury of their peers. But without a jury ...."
Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at (707) 442-1400, extension 321, or email@example.com.