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New law expends pool of potential jurors

Posted: August 1, 2012 - 12:07am  |  Updated: August 2, 2012 - 1:45pm
Columbia County Clerk of Court Cindy Mason has implemented state-mandated changes in the way juries are selected. Every resident who is at least 18 years old now can be called.  Photo by Jim Blaylock
Photo by Jim Blaylock
Columbia County Clerk of Court Cindy Mason has implemented state-mandated changes in the way juries are selected. Every resident who is at least 18 years old now can be called.

 

Columbia County’s jury pool just got a little deeper.

New legislation reforming Georgia’s jury system went into effect July 1 and expanded the local jury pool to every legally eligible citizen. Every resident who is at least 18 years old and a citizen, who votes or has a driver’s license or state-issued ID card, will be eligible for jury duty under the new law.

The number of potential jurors in the county rose to about 118,000 people, up from between 30,000 and 40,000, county Clerk of Superior Court Cindy Mason said.

Mason said she pulls panels of about 150 people for each trial week for the county’s eight Superior Court judges.

“The pool is larger to pull out of,” Mason said. “So the same random people are less likely to get pulled. … There are some that have never been pulled that now have a chance to get pulled.”

Previously, Georgia was the only state that required “forced balancing” of jury pools. Local jury commissions oversaw the balancing, which allowed clerks to remove individuals based on their gender, race or age so the demographics of the pool matched the population demographics as listed in the most current census.

“The jury pool was large, but not all eligible citizens,” Mason said.

The Georgia Supreme Court ruled that forced balancing was unconstitutional. The new system is designed to eliminate the opportunity for discrimination.

Under the new law, a list of prospective jurors is compiled using the state driver’s license and voter registration lists. The local clerks pull names at random from a state-certified pool.

The system, Mason said, is more objective and random.

District Attorney Ashley Wright said she doesn’t expect the new law to have a major affect on the outcome of trials.

The number of potential jurors is larger, but they are still members of the same community.

“Including more people in the process can only be good,” Wright said. “We look for the collective wisdom and experience of the jury to set the standard for the community. Our jurors know that their work is serious and that their decisions must be sound.

“I have every reason to believe that the new model will encourage the same dedication to the task as the old one did.”

The method for choosing grand jurors also changes with the new law.

“Our grand jurors will be selected from the same master list, which was different from before,” Mason said. “We had two (different) jury pools before.”

For more than 200 years, jury commissioners chose grand jurors from a group considered to be “the most intelligent, most experienced and most upright” citizens of the county. Potential grand jurors still have some additional qualifications but are pulled from the same pool as regular jurors.

Mason said she has already pulled her first panels from the newly expanded jury pool. They are pulled about six weeks before they are scheduled to appear, giving clerks time to get summons prepared and mailed. She expects those jurors to be called to serve by the end of August or the first week of September.

Some hiccups could come with the new system. The new lists provided by the state might not include those who previously have been permanently excused from jury duty. Anyone older than 70 can be voluntarily excused. Others who can be “inactivated” are those with permanent medical conditions that could prevent serving on a jury, convicted felons, non-county residents, anyone younger than 18 and those who are mentally incapable of serving. Those people must fill out an affidavit for excusal.

Those called for jury duty can be temporarily excused or deferred for other reasons, such as being a full-time college student, a primary caregiver for children younger than 6 or someone whose pre-arranged travel conflicts with jury duty.

“If (you receive a summons and) you, in fact, have been in the past excused or inactivated for any reason,” Mason said, “bear with us because you could actually be put back in the pool. We hope that people will be understanding that all they need to do is contact us and let us know that this person has been chosen and we can go in and take care of that issue.”

For more information on the changes, call the Clerk of Superior Court’s office at (706) 312-7139, or e-mail clerkinfo@columbia.gsccca.org.

Other information about laws, policies and procedures related to jury service is available at www.columbiacountyga.gov.

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