Garcia: Why are we called to jury duty so often? 

There just aren’t many big cities in America where jurors could accurately be described as the usual suspects.

But that’s the case in San Francisco, where the prospect of receiving a summons to appear in court as a potential juror is like an annual ritual, a legal dance echoing a brave, frigid march of the penguins across the Civic Center and South of Market.

I know this because I have received the court’s appeal letter almost every year since I moved back to San Francisco, and from my conversations with my fellow citizens at the Hall of Justice this week, so have many of them. And while I have no problem serving in this great democratic system of equal justice, our local selection system is flawed and in need of fixing — and you don’t have to swear on a stack of Bibles to know this is true.

Earlier this year, the statewide Administrative Office of the Courts issued a report noting that San Francisco citizens are asked to serve jury duty seven times more than the national average. Each month, more than 25,000 city residents are summoned for jury duty to the civil or criminal courts, a number that the report attributed to judges calling for too many jurors on cases and many people not being able to serve because they don’t understand English well enough. And we all know it doesn’t matter what language we speak to understand that most people would rather appear in a dentist’s chair than a juror seat, based on their frantic attempts to stay out of one.

Yet it appears that this random selection system isn’t so random, which is why I ended up with an early Christmas present last year — a notice to appear on Jan. 2, the perfect New Year’s hangover cure. A work conflict demanded that I ask for an extension, which is why I ended up in that ever-happy jury assembly room in the prison fortress we fondly refer to as the Hall of Justice on Friday.

As a personal aside, my near-annual call to jury service has become so predictable they should start placing odds in the sports books. Since my work as a journalist over the years has placed me in contact with untold numbers of police officers, law enforcement officials, lawyers, judges and even a criminal or two, I have so many conflicts through my contacts that my services as a juror have never been, as they say, accepted, no matter how many times they’ve been offered.

Indeed, it took less than two minutes when I finally got into the voir dire pool Tuesday to get tossed, something I knew was going to happen. Nonetheless, I had to wait three days before I could tell the judge that I knew, both socially and professionally, at least two of the police officers who were going to testify in the pending criminal trial.

"Are you friends with them?’’ the judge asked.

"Well, yes, your honor — one of them is actually my daughter’s high school soccer coach.’’

So goes my life as a perpetual, wandering juror. But the real question is, why should it take three days to get to the inevitable conclusion? This is especially true since San Francisco adopted a "one-day, one-trial system’’ under which prospective jurors are supposed to be picked or dismissed on the first day — a solution introduced by then-Supervisor Gavin Newsom eight years ago.

But a lot of judges aren’t accountable and hold the jurors subject to their own timetables and personal schedules. And that’s how my one day of service lasted over three, as I bided my time waiting to get to a chance to tell the judge why she would need to send me packing.

How to improve the jury selection process? For one, San Francisco needs to widen the pool and not just rely on voter registration and Department of Motor Vehicles rolls to find potential jurors. Everybody pays taxes (because those who don’t end up in court), so why not extend the potential pool to the state tax board agency and let those who don’t vote or drive (and never will) experience the joys of jury attendance.

And as for the judges? Don’t try to put a jury panel together unless you have enough time to do so in one day — coming back for several hours on consecutive days makes a mockery of the one-day system.

But it’s good to know my search for justice will continue. When I got my dismissal slip this week I was told I was already in the pool to be sent another summons this year — though it might not come until 2008.

As they say, see you in court.

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

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