By Alton Porter - Courier Reporter
This is Jury Appreciation Week in Texas, and Houston County government officials and private citizens are taking part in events all week to recognize the outstanding work jurors do and to celebrate the service they provide.
The week of events kicked off with the reading of the "Houston County Proclamation in Appreciation of Jury Service" by several officials during an hour of fellowship and conversation -- over coffee and donuts -- at a reception on the first floor of the county courthouse Monday morning, May 2.
Other activities have included a program honoring jurors at the Houston County Senior Center Tuesday and a gathering on the east side of the courthouse at which snow cones were served Wednesday afternoon.
A program in which flags will be temporarily placed in different spots all around the courthouse to salute those people who report for jury service will wrap up the activities tomorrow.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you" to all jurors who have served in Houston County, said Judge Sarah Tunnell Clark, County Court at Law Judge, when asked what message she wanted to send to jurors after the reception Monday. "That's what we're about this week. Thank you for your jury service."
District Clerk Carolyn Rains added, "To those jurors who come and serve, we [want them to know we really do appreciate them."
Clark explained that the purpose of Jury Appreciation Week is "to acknowledge the important role that jurors have in helping us have our justice system work. Without jurors, people don't have the right to a jury trial. Without people showing up, they don't have a right to a jury trial. Jury trial is a way for people that aren't here (at the courthouse) all them time to hear facts fairly, make a decision based on common sense, their own beliefs, what they hear in the courtroom and make a fair decision. If I was accused of something or if I was on trial for something, or if I had a civil lawsuit, I would like to know that I have fair citizens that can make the decision from a cross-section of Houston County, not just certain hand-picked people. And that's what we have."
Jury Appreciation Week is brand new in Texas and Houston County. It was enacted by the 84th Texas Legislature and Governor Greg Abbott last year, taking effective June 16. Senate Bill 565, which created the occasion, was authored by Senator Royce West, D-Dallas (District 23). Representative John Smithee, R-Amarillo (District 86) was the sponsor of the legislation in the Texas House. After the Texas Senate approved the bill April 30, 2015, and the house approved it May 22, 2015. Gov. Abbott signed it June 16, 2015, and it took effect immediately on that date. (We use the year when it's not the current year.)
The text of the new act states that it establishes "the first seven days in May as Jury Appreciation Week in recognition of the outstanding and important contributions made by Texas citizens who serve as jurors."
Emphasizing the significance of jurors' work and the need for an occasion to honor that work, the Senate Research Center in Austin released a statement saying, "The work of juries is extremely important to the functioning of democracy, and without it many of the liberties and freedoms we have as a society could be in jeopardy."
Former Governor Rick Perry also saw the need to recognize persons who serve as jurors and took action on his thoughts. In July 2014, he issued a proclamation naming that month Juror Appreciation month in Texas. In issuing the proclamation, Perry urged Texans to respond to the call of jury service. He noted the importance of jury service to our civil justice system.
In his proclamation, Perry stated, "The right to trial by jury of our peers is a critical part of our justice system," according to a press release from Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse. "Unfortunately, many under value that right and shirk responsibility when they are called to jury service. Because plaintiffs, defendants and our communities as a whole all have a vested interest in a fair, impartial justice, it is imperative that every citizen [prioritizes] jury service and thoughtfully, respectfully serves when called."
In a Thursday, April 28, online press release from Amy Starnes, Public Information Director, State Bar of Texas, Starnes stated, "Jury Appreciation Week is dedicated to honoring those who give of their time to participate in our judicial system."
Houston County's Jury Appreciation Week observance and activities were planned and coordinated by Clark, Rains and County Clerk Bridgette Lamb.
"I like the idea of jury appreciation," said Gary Allen Burns, of Crockett and owner of Burns Forestry, who attended the proclamation reading reception Monday and has served as a juror in the past. "When you serve as a juror, you sometimes think you're not appreciated."
Clark said jury service "is really important ... we don't have a system like some countries do where you basically have to prove your innocence (when charged with an offense). No, no they have to prove that you're guilty (in this country).
"And we don't have a system that's just made up of judges that hear these kinds of things day after day after day. In some countries, you don't have a right to a jury. in most countries, you don't have a right to a jury. But, we do here [in America].
And it just gives our system a fairness where people feel like their peers really are making decisions about them. I think that's important."
According to the "Texas Uniform Jury Handbook," prepared by the Texas Bar, "The United States Constitution and the Texas Constitution guarantee all people, regardless of race, religion, sex, national origin, or economic status, the right to trial by an impartial jury. Justice ultimately depends to a large measure upon the quality of the jurors who serve in our courts."
"As a juror," the handbook states, "you must be fair and impartial. Your actions and decisions must be free of any bias or prejudice. Your actions and decisions are the foundation of your judicial system."
Clark summed up the main duty of a juror in a word—listening. A juror's "number one responsibility is to listen to what's going on, to not bring in outside information, to not do any kind of outside research, and we really stress that now," she said, "because people hit that Google button so often trying to find stuff. We really stress that they have to listen to the information they hear in the courtroom, follow the judge's instructions. It's basically a listening responsibility. They listen carefully to the evidence that's heard until it [the presentation of evidence during a trial] is completed, and they can't even talk about it among themselves until it's concluded."
Clark continued, "And then, after it's concluded, they have the responsibility as a group to apply the rules we give them in the jury charge to the facts that they heard. So then, they take those rules and apply them to the facts. That's what they do in the jury room we hope. They sit there and think of what they heard and decide: did they meet all these requirements? Yes or no, if it's a civil case or a criminal case, either one. Then, they come up with a decision if they can. We do have people who can't reach a decision. You know, jurors who can't reach a decision. That's a hung jury. We go back and encourage them to make a decision. And when they can't and come to an impasse, then we let them leave. But usually our jurors come to a decision."
Clark said the roster of names from which prospective jurors who are sent summonses are selected from is compiled from two sources from Houston County—the list of registered voters and the list of driver registrations. Clark said the District Clerk and County Clerk offices in Houston County request and receive the "rotation list" from the Texas Secretary of State Office in Austin.
To be qualified to serve as a juror in Houston County, a person must meet eight eligibility requirements, according to Clark and Rains and a copy of the summons card that is mailed to prospective jurors. The individual must be at least 18 years of age and an American citizen. He/she must be a resident of both Texas and this county, and be qualified under the Constitution and laws to vote in Houston County, even though the person does not actually have to be registered to vote. In addition, the prospective juror must be of sound mind and good moral character, and must be able to read and write. The individual must not have served as a juror for six days during the preceding three months in the county court or during the preceding six months I the district court. Finally, a juror must not have been convicted of, or be under indictment or other legal accusation for, misdemeanor theft or a felony.
Of seven allowable reasons a person may successfully request to be excused or exempt from jury service, Clark and Rains said the two that are most common in Houston County are: over 70 years of age and serving as a primary caretaker of a person who is unable to care for himself/herself. People who qualify for exemptions are not required to use them; they may choose to serve and will be allowed to as long as they meet all the qualification requirements.
Asked what she wants people who may be summoned for jury duty to know, Clark replied, "That it's an enjoyable process, I think. That they can come up here ... we will try to use their time as carefully as we can to get done with their responsibilities. We try not to waste their time. I think here in Houston County we do a pretty good job."