Garcia: S.F. seeking answer to jury-duty problem 

When paid observers turn their eyes on San Francisco’s fast-rotating jury service pool, chances are pretty good they’ll get a different kind of summons.

I know this from personal experience. After I wrote about how often San Franciscans get called to court a few weeks back, I received an invitation to discuss it with some of those charged with overseeing the jury selection process, who wanted to provide insight into why the local system here is so challenged to find potential members.

That was the main point of my previous column, since I’ve been paid an almost annual visit from the jury summons fairy since I’ve been in San Francisco, and so have lots of my fellow citizens. When I pointed out that San Franciscans are asked to serve jury duty seven times more than the national average, I received so many e-mails from jurors with frequent flier miles that I felt like I had announced my membership in some select club.

But select here means something quite different, which is how I came to sit this week with the court’s chief executive officer, Gordon Park-Li and David L. Ballati, the presiding judge of San Francisco Superior Court system, who told me that they are working hard to lengthen the time period when jurors are summoned, and why that’s been difficult for a whole series of reasons.

So why do all those faces look familiar down at the courthouse? Even though San Francisco has about 750,000 residents, the existing jury pool is about half that size, approximately 380,000 people, whose names are culled through matches between the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Registrar of Voters. That would seem to indicate that a lot of people here either don’t drive or don’t vote — and from my experience on the streets of San Francisco and at election time, that may be a good thing.

But it makes for a relatively small group of potential jurors, especially since a lot of people seem to bow out of the selection process simply by ignoring their summons or working so desperately once they get in a jury pool to get bounced from it. And that doesn’t even include the number of "ineligibles’’ — people who aren’t U.S. citizens or don’t speak English, of which San Francisco has an inordinately high percentage.

Ballati told me that a special court committee recently decided to base the number of jurors called by judges on the average time it takes to try certain cases — misdemeanors, felonies or lengthy civil trials for things such as asbestos claims — which should reduce the number of jurors called by judges. The goal is to reduce the average interval for jurors to be called to every 16 to 18 months, down from the 12-month cycle that the courts have been locked into in recent years.

"We need to fine-tune our system so that we can fulfill our responsibility to the law,’’ Ballati said. "But we’re limited by the size of The City. The only way to really increase the juror pool is to expand the boundaries of San Francisco.’’

And that’s not likely to happen soon. I asked if there’s a better way to speed the selection process, so that the real goal of San Francisco’sofficial "one day, one trial’’ system is met. I spent three days in the jury pool recently on a case that I knew I had conflicts with, something that jurors constantly complain about. But given the way the courts are set up using a direct calendar system — where trial motions are heard in the mornings, and trials and jury selection generally take place in the afternoons — speed and efficiency are more of a concept than a reality.

Changing it would only overburden some courts, where they would have up to 80 cases on calendar each day. Ballati said that would just create more problems for the judges and the juries and the scheduling. And that’s no small thing when you’re trying to get people to understand that jury service is really a key, and often cool, part of that little thing we like to call democracy.

Personally, I would volunteer two weeks a year just to do it, but that would take the whole blind-justice-random-selection-thing and turn it on its legally bound head. But it doesn’t obscure the fact that serving on a jury is one of the more interesting things people can do — and Ballati has files upon files of letters from jurors stating just that.

It might not be enough to get our stealth jurors out of hiding, but it should. Otherwise it’s going to mean that the rest of us remain active members in this courtroom cast of the usual suspects.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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