SKOWHEGAN — Superior Court Justice Robert Mullen has had enough with people not showing up for jury duty.

So much so that Mullen, the state’s deputy chief justice, is ready to go old school on no-show jurors and haul them into court for not appearing when summoned to serve their civic duty. The prevalence of no-show jurors has recently threatened the ability of trials to be held and verdicts decided.

Mullen has called a dozen of them to appear before him at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday at Somerset County Superior Court to discuss the problem. They potentially face a fine or jail time if they snub that follow-up call to report to the county courthouse.

“The law is the law and I think some people need to realize that there are some teeth to back up their duty to serve if they don’t come and don’t explain why,” Mullen said Friday in his chambers in Skowhegan. “What that could include, if they’re found in contempt, is a fine not to exceed $100 and up to three days imprisonment, or both. That’s what the law is and it’s in recognition of the importance of serving on a jury if called for.”

Mullen’s concerns about jurors aren’t isolated to just Somerset County.

Elaine Clark, director of communications for the Maine Judicial Branch, said there does appear to be a problem statewide with people not showing up for jury duty, but there also may be valid reasons in some cases. She said data on jurors not showing up for service were not immediately available on Friday and that her sense of the problem is strictly based on personal accounts.

“Anecdotally, there are regions that are struggling with the issue of citizens showing up for jury duty,” Clark said. “We are acknowledging there is a bit of an issue at the present time. However, the courts also acknowledge that people are busy, they have medical appointments, they have lives, sometimes financial constraints, and that the solution to unavailability is not to ignore the notice and not show up, but it’s to get in touch with the court.”

COURTS FLEXIBLE

Clark and Mullen both said the courts are flexible when it comes to people showing up for jury duty and that court clerks are able to accommodate schedules with potential jurors.

The pay may be low – $15 a day, plus 44 cents a mile – but the obligation and the duty remain, backed up by law.

“So there seems to be an issue – we do not know the scope of it – but the important message is that citizens who receive notices need to get in touch with the court if they have difficulties appearing for jury duty,” Clark said.

Jurors are called to duty randomly by regular mail, using Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicle rosters, which are given to the state’s courts. Mullen’s follow-up notice to a dozen potential jurors was also sent by regular mail.

Mullen said that during a recent jury call, the court started with a list of 150 people. That was whittled down to 96 people who were supposed to show up for jury selection for a trial set to begin Aug. 27, and only 75 of them came. That’s 78 percent of those called upon.

For that, he said, he has ordered the court clerk to send out summonses – notices – to 12 people to meet him in court Tuesday morning to talk about why they didn’t show up. Of that number, five people have failed to appear after two court notices.

Mullen, who divides his time as a Superior Court justice in Somerset, Franklin and Kennebec counties, said he understands the different reasons for not being able to serve on a jury, including “I don’t want to,” but it is the people who ignore the call to service that he is targeting.

“We ended up just barely being able to pick a jury,” he said of jury selection on Aug. 9 for the trial scheduled on Aug. 27. “We barely had enough in the pool to pick a jury. I struggled in the past with what to do about people who don’t show up for jury duty.”

Mullen said that if someone does not want to be on a jury, then attorneys representing the defendants also may not want someone who doesn’t want to be there. He said the burden of civic duty shouldn’t fall on just a few people, but is something the entire community should share.

Exemptions for jury duty can include the governor, active duty military personnel, non-U.S. citizens, people under the age of 18, non-residents of the particular county and people who are unable to read, speak and understand the English language, unless the inability is a result of a physical disability, according to the State of Maine Judicial Branch website.

SOME EXEMPTIONS ALLOWED

Certain municipal and state election officials also are exempt from jury service during elections.

“In the old days there were judges who said go out and bring these people in,” Mullen said. “That’s not my style, so I’m not doing that – at least not yet.”

He said most people do show up when asked to serve, and for the justice to work it’s important to have a broad cross section of the community willing to serve on a jury and participate in the democratic process.

Defense attorney Stephen Smith says it’s always a struggle to fill a jury in a high-profile sex or murder case, but justice depends upon citizens answering the call of duty. Staff file photo by Michael G. Seamans

Stephen Smith – an Augusta lawyer who defended Luc Tieman this year in Tieman’s murder trial in the death of his wife, Valerie, before Justice Mullen in Skowhegan – said potential jurors take their duties seriously and respond truthfully to disqualifying questions, but others attempt to get out of the service altogether.

“It is always a struggle to get enough jurors in some of the higher profile sex or murder cases,” Smith said in an email. “Usually the court anticipates the difficulty and calls extra jurors, but this creates its own stress on the system. I have had trial terms pass without being able to get enough jurors. People need to understand that jury duty is one of the chief ways we maintain our freedom from government oppression.

“The alternative is to have our legal fates decided by government officials,” he continued. “Our founders were wise enough to understand that not every government in every age of our Republic would be wise and benevolent and so built in this important safeguard.”

Mullen said anyone summoned for jury duty, even if they are not selected, cannot be ordered to perform jury duty again for the next five years. He said if a person is selected to serve on a jury, it would be only for one trial and not for too many days. A juror also cannot lose his or her job or health insurance because they are called to serve, Mullen added.

“I’m willing to work with people if they have a problem – maybe they’re the sole bread winner for their family, maybe they run a business and they need to be there, maybe they have a doctor’s appointment or will be on vacation for certain periods. I’m more than happy to work around that. But just not showing up is just not acceptable.”