Summoned for duty? Computers may be option

By DARCIE MORAN

Capital News Service

LANSING — Jury selection might become slightly less tedious for jurors and some courts thanks to a change in rules by the Michigan Supreme Court.

The recent amendment allows personal history jury questionnaires to be completed, returned and maintained electronically, effective May 1.

Previously court rule stated the questionnaire had to be completed in handwriting by the prospective juror. Paper is still permitted.

Personal history questionnaires are used to select jurors for a specific trial while qualification questionnaires are initially sent to determine eligibility to act as a juror, said Marcia McBrien, Michigan Supreme Court public information officer.

Many courts include both questionnaires on a single sheet of paper, McBrien said.

Electronic questionnaires could save Michigan courts both time and money, said Greg Hurley, knowledge management analyst for the Center for Jury Studies.

The Center for Jury Studies is a project of the National Center for State Courts based in Virginia that researches and collects statistics on state courts for improvement.

“Michigan is a little behind the eight ball because many states have gone electronic,” Hurley said.

Multiple states have been using the medium for more than 10 years, Hurley said. He expects nearly all jurisdictions go electronic within the next five to 10 years.

McBrien said although individuals in the law sector are notoriously slow to change, the amendment is just one of many changes the court system is making to become more computer based.

The court recently adopted a rule allowing audio and video court transcripts to be taken in place of written transcripts, McBrien said.

After 10 months attempting to get questionnaires returned, Bonnie Scheele said the rule change is a good idea.

“Anything that makes it easier and faster to get the questionnaires back from the potential juror is a good thing,” Scheele, Grand Traverse county clerk, said. “Trying to get people to send them back is the hardest part.”

The process for the questionnaire started in April 2013 when she mailed 5,350 jury questionnaires to prospective jurors, Scheele said.

In August, after mailing the documents twice more, the sheriff’s department had to serve more than 100 people the questionnaires in person, Scheele said.

The last two individuals who did not return the questionnaires will have to explain to a judge why they should not be held in contempt of court.

Not responding to a juror questionnaire can result in fines or imprisonment.

The whole process cost Grand Traverse County almost $7,500, Scheele said.

Although lack of resources available to courts could be an obstacle to implementing electronic jury questionnaires, McBrien said the change is beneficial.

Members of the Michigan Association of Circuit Court Administrators and the State Bar of Michigan Board of Commissioners both supported the amendment.

However, some communities might not benefit from the rule change, said Wexford County Clerk Elaine Richardson.

Richardson said a rural community might not use computers as much as other areas, although in the future it might be more feasible.

Although Richardson said a system involving both paper and electronic questionnaires could be used, she isn’t keen to start it immediately.

“The system we have right now is probably best,” she said. “(We’ll) see how it works in other areas, that people actually respond to the questionnaires.”

Although Michigan has been slow to using electronic jury documents, Hurley, of the Center for Jury Studies, said the state has been a leader at times, particularly in creating specialty courts for issues such as driving under the influence and drugs.

In FY 2014, Michigan allotted $1 million for a Court Performance Improvement Fund, which has issued grants for Washtenaw County Trial Court’s Peacemaking Court.

The fund also issued a grant for social media, text and phone reminders for court hearings and child support payments in Muskegon County 14th Circuit and Family Court.

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