Some trial attorneys don’t care if a Queen Creek resident has to drive 135 miles round-trip to serve on a jury in Surprise, or if someone in Gila Bend has to drive 170 miles to and from northeast Phoenix.
We recognize these are the most extreme examples of what happens when Maricopa County draws up lists of potential jurors for criminal and civil trials in superior court. The largest number of jurors are summoned to downtown Phoenix.
But even a trip to the central courthouse has become increasingly difficult as the population of Maricopa County has exploded. Traveling such distances for several days or weeks has become another reason why more people resist jury service. Court officials moved to ease this inconvenience in 2002 with a computer system designed to improve our chances of being called for jury duty to the courtroom closest to our homes.
This system seemed to work quite well until March, when attorney Scott Ambrose filed a formal objection after his client lost a civil lawsuit against the city of Phoenix that was tried at the north East Valley courthouse. Ambrose claims the jury pool was dominated by residents of Scottsdale and Paradise Valley who were too rich and too conservative, when state law requires a random selection countywide.
Tribune writer Gary Grado reported Saturday that lawyers in other civil cases have added their own complaints, and another lawyer in a criminal case was preparing one as well. These lawyers say they want a fair and impartial legal system. But in reality, these lawyers think they have found a loophole that will allow them to reverse bad outcomes for their clients.
It’s disingenuous to argue that a system which selects randomly from up to a half-million people in contiguous zip codes has failed to draw on a broad cross-section of our communities.
Besides, it’s not as if these lawyers are powerless in shaping the makeup of juries. The courts allow attorneys on both side a series of challenges to potential jurors, without explanation, to seek the best mix possible.
Maricopa County court officials are defending the pairing of jurors with the closest courthouse. But they are nervous enough about the objections that they are temporarily suspending the program on Aug. 14, which likely will send more people driving hundreds of miles out of their way.
Pinal County Superior Court Judge William O’Neal will weigh the lawyers’ protests, and we urge him to reject them in favor of a sane practice that decreases the incentives for people to shirk jury duty.
But if these trial attorneys prevail, the Arizona Legislature needs to step in quickly next year to change the law.