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District Judge Says Court Trials Backlogged, Asks Community’s Help With Jury Duty Emails

Credit A sample letter from the Utah courts

Utah courts began sending people jury questionnaires by email during the pandemic as a public health measure. In Summit County, the shift to email court notices to potential jurors has yielded very little participation, which is a problem as courts seek to schedule backlogged jury trials. 

Third district Court Judge Richard Mrazik knows that people may not enjoy receiving a notice to answer questions on a survey that could result in being called to jury duty.

But he says responding to jury summonses – and serving if called on - is a civic duty and an integral part of the country’s democracy. It’s also a service the courts need desperately right now – they’ve got a lengthy backlog due to jury trials being postponed during COVID.

"It's important to remember that this isn't an academic exercise," he said. "There are defendants who are presumed innocent, waiting for their chance to have their innocence vindicated. There are victims who have been hurt through crime waiting for their chance to tell their story. They've had to wait for a very long time because of COVID. We have a long slate of jury trials that we need to go forward with."

Court officials are worried that the move to virtually contacting potential jurors rather than sending them a physical piece of mail has contributed to a low response rate and a jury pool nowhere near large enough to meet the area’s needs.

The emails will say something like Jury@UT courts.gov or Summit Jury at UT courts.gov in the ‘from’ field. The subject line should say Utah District Court local juror notice followed by a resident’s name. The emails contain a message that will say “Your Utah state juror number is:” and will also contain PDF attachments with information and instructions for the questionnaires. 

Whether people are ignoring the emails or deleting them thinking they may be fraudulent, or whether they’re going into spam folders, the result is not enough jurors. The emails and their attachments are safe, and Mrazik pointed out that residents who do this step virtually should find it much faster and more efficient than going to the courthouse for jury selection.

"Now you can do it from your office," he said. "You can do it from your kitchen table, you will not have to come to the courthouse for jury selection. Rather, you'll just log in to a WebEx video conference. But the first step so that we know that you can be qualified as a juror is to fill out this questionnaire. So it's, it's designed to be a better system, but it does require a little more engagement from the potential juror upfront."

Mrazik urged residents to watch for the court’s emails, take them seriously, and participate in the process. He also acknowledged that serving on a jury can present a hardship for some people whether economically, logistically or otherwise, and said the courts do consider exceptions to jury duty requirements on a case by case basis.

Summit County employers may also groan inwardly when employees need to serve on a jury, especially with the current sever staffing shortage. But Mrazik said that’s part of how the country operates.

He said the right to a jury trial is guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Constitution of Utah, and the courts understand and expect that jurors--and their employers--will make some level of sacrifice to serve. 

He added that the court’s backlog of jury trials is related primarily to criminal trials, which are typically much shorter than civil trials. He said most criminal cases only last a few days, so the time spent serving may be shorter than people realize.

Go to KPCW.org for more information and examples of the emails the courts send to residents.