Presidio County representatives discuss incentives to increase jury duty response rate

PRESIDIO COUNTY — At a special meeting of the Presidio County Commissioners Court held June 21, county representatives discussed the best method of reimbursing residents summoned for jury duty. The previous system entailed paying jurors with checks, but County Clerk Florcita Zubia suggested paying cash instead. It was a small step that opened up a larger conversation about how to encourage county residents to fulfill their civic duties, as few residents summoned actually show up for jury duty. 

Per the Texas Government Code, counties must pay jurors at least $6 for their first day of jury duty and at least $40 for subsequent days. County commissioners can then apply for reimbursement from the state for a portion of those fees. Presidio County currently pays its jurors $10 for the first day and $40 a day for any following days. 

County Auditor Patty Roach agreed with Zubia that the system in place to pay jurors was full of bookkeeping headaches. “Every time we add a juror, we’ve got to issue them a $10 check,” she explained. An additional auditing snarl: each individual juror had to be listed as a vendor in the county’s books before a check could be issued in the first place. “A lot of people lose those checks, so at the end of the year we’ve got a bunch of random $10 checks floating around out there.” 

The commissioners voted to open up a petty cash fund to make Roach’s and Zubia’s vision a reality, but Zubia suggested that the court discuss at a future meeting the possibility of raising the $10 appearance payout to incentivize county residents to respond to jury summons. “It’s hard for Presidio County to get a jury together,” Zubia told the commissioners. “It’s so hard — I called 400 for a jury trial last month and we had 28 [responses], so we had to cancel.” 

Zubia told The Big Bend Sentinel that she was worried about a jury trial coming up later in the summer. She put out notices by mail for 650 potential jurors — almost twice the number she put out for May’s trial, the one that would ultimately be canceled. “We’ll maybe get 60 [people] here,” she said. 

The “jury wheel” — the system by which Presidio County chooses potential jurors to pull for duty — is a team effort between the offices of the county clerk and the tax assessor-collector, as well as the state of Texas. On the local end, the tax assessor-collector keeps track of who has registered to vote, and the county clerk keeps track of who actually showed up to vote. The state keeps track of folks through measures like issuing IDs, so simply not voting isn’t enough to get a county resident out of jury duty.

Between the clerk and the tax assessor-collector, the county has a pretty good idea of who is eligible to serve, but the system isn’t perfect. “We have a lot of deceased people who are still on the rolls, and people over 70,” Zubia explained. Zubia is also in the unusual position of handling birth and death certificates as part of her duties; that’s not true of all county clerks, and doesn’t give her the power to strike someone from the rolls simply because she has documentation that they’ve passed away. It takes coordination between the three entities to cull the list. 

Zubia — who also serves as the district clerk — explained that the difference between the types of cases tried by the county and district courts is a matter of degree. The county court hears misdemeanor cases; the district court hears felonies. County juries can hear both civil and criminal cases. “It just depends on how the case is going — what the attorneys, the plaintiff or respondent are asking for,” Zubia explained. “We’ve had cases over disputed property where the respondent asked for a jury trial. It just depends.” 

County residents can be called to serve on a petit jury, which decides a defendant’s guilt or innocence, or a grand jury, which decides whether or not to bring formal criminal charges against a potential defendant. Zubia’s office implemented a color-coded system to help residents tell what kind of jury they’ve been called to serve. “The yellow slip is always going to be for a grand jury, and the hot pink slip is for a [petit] jury,” she explained. 

Zubia hopes that small adjustments in the system will help encourage Presidio County residents to respond to their summons and get excited about the process. “It’s a civil duty — I think everyone should be a part of it,” she said. “The system is innocent until proven guilty, but there are people guilty of crimes who do need to be prosecuted. That’s where we — the public — come in.”