“You are hereby summoned”

"Aw, expletive."

Such was my reaction (somewhat redacted) to the familiar envelope from the local branch of the Missouri Circuit Court. "Time to put your civics pants on, citizen," the letter said, more or less. The actual wording of these missives is always verbose, the tone always stiff and imperious. Lots of sticks and no carrots at all.

In the course of jury service, you may well accept and appreciate your role in the legal system. You might even come away bearing the bright nimbus of pride, the glow of participation in a cause larger than oneself. This is the kind of halo that is also worn by most blood donors, a few idealistic voters, and one or two Ron Paul supporters. But it's a hard, stony walk from here to there. For most of us, jury duty starts off annoying and inconvenient and never progresses very far from that point. The hectoring tone of the summons doesn't exactly help matters.

For the sake of discussion, let's stipulate that I may not always have been as prompt to answer the civic call as I might have been. Let's say that there may have been one or two instances in the past where summonses may have gone unacknowledged. If such was ever the case, it was surely in part a negative response to the imperiousness of the call to service. Not exactly what the jury supervisor had in mind!

I think it important to hastily add here that I have responded quite diligently to the needs of the court over the last six years, making myself available for voir dire twice and serving once as an alternate. Now yet another opportunity for service presents itself. Do I really have to wait three weeks? Can't I just scamper down to the court house right-friggin'-now? Yeah, that's how excited I am over demonstrating my good citizenship, and don't forget it.

As an invitation to service, however, the summons still sucks. A revision is in order. More flies with honey, and all that.

Whenever you get the call, the question that always comes up among friends and coworkers is "What, again?" Living in the city of St. Louis seems to mean never being terribly far from the next period of service, while citizens outside the city limits seem to more easily evade the civic dragnet. "I've lived in the county for decades," boasts one coworker, "and I've never been called." Before I could properly upbraid her for mocking me, she added that she had served twice while living in the city.

It seems to come down to a numbers game in terms of both population and cases to be judged. Not a whole lot has changed since this 2000 Riverfront Times piece on jury duty.

If you live in the city, chances are you'll be summoned for jury duty once every three years. (Though it's called justice, believe this: A lot is left to chance.) If you live in the suburbs in St. Louis County, a summons will be issued about once every 10 years. In rural Missouri, citizens might get called once in a lifetime. The reason city folk are in such demand is simple: There are more crimes and more civil suits per capita. There are jury trials for more than 200 felonies a year in the city and for more than 200 civil suits. Those numbers are way ahead of Jackson County's and St. Louis County's, and they're for a smaller population (about 340,000) with higher proportions of juveniles and elderly.

So this being the case - a smaller pool on which to draw, more occasions to press them into service, we're all in this together, so on, so forth - and it being unlikely that anything will change soon, the least the local court could do is find a way to ask just a little more nicely. Cheerier jurors are - I think - more disposed to be just. Of course, I have no evidence to support that.

Well. I gotta go find my civics pants. Hope they still fit.


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