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Hall jury pool expands with new system
Voters and drivers lists combined to select Ga. jurors
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Hall County’s jury pool

Previous system: 31,878
New system: 168,705*
County’s population that’s 18 or older: 126,069
*Includes some duplication

Source: Hall County Clerk of Courts Office

Dodging jury duty in Hall County is much harder now — at least for those who have voted or have a driver’s license.

Changes in state law have moved the jury selection away from a forced-balancing process that uses a small fraction of people to reflect the overall population to one that includes anyone with a driver’s license or on the voter registration list.

“So the jury box, although it didn’t contain every eligible juror in the county, still mirrored the population in the county,” said Georgia Supreme Court Justice Hugh Thompson, who chaired a special state jury commission. “But the problem there was that there were still people who had never served on a jury.”

Greg Whitmire, Hall County’s chief deputy clerk of courts, said the old system tried to make the jury reflect the racial makeup of the county.

“An example would be if the county was 95 percent white, the jury had to be 95 percent white,” Whitmire said.
That system resulted in not everyone in the county being selected to serve on a jury.

“In the past that’s been our biggest complaint: someone said their wife got called three times in 10 years and he hadn’t been called,” Whitmire said. “That’s because in the past, everyone wasn’t called.”

Now with the new jury lists — handed down from the Council of Superior Court Clerks of Georgia — there is a much larger, more diverse jury pool.

Hall County’s old jury pool was 31,878, while the new list is more than five times larger at 168,705.

The council uses the combined driver’s license database and voter registration list, along with input from the local clerk of courts office to determine the new pool every year. Previously, the list had to be updated at least every two years, but received more changes after each census.

Thompson said the changes are a good thing, pointing out that Georgia was the last state to switch from the force-balancing process.

“This is really something to be proud of,” he said. “We are allowing every jury-eligible person in the whole state of Georgia to have an opportunity to serve on a jury.

“People pay taxes, they go vote and some people run for office, but this is, for most people, one of the most direct ways they can be a part of their state’s government.”

The system hasn’t been without its challenges. Charles Baker, clerk of courts for Hall County, said he’s pleased with the new system, but there have been some issues.

“There’s still some things that may be worked out as they go,” he said.

One of the biggest issues is that combining the statewide lists has caused some residents to be put on the jury selection list twice, Whitmire said.

“There may be a person with one name on driver’s license and on the voter’s registration a different one, but they’re the same person” Whitmire said, citing an example of people using a middle initial instead of the full middle name, or leaving out the middle name entirely, which can cause the duplication.

“We discovered it was easier to capture people (from the state’s combined lists), but not to capture them only one time,” Thompson said. “That’s been the most difficult, and we’re still having a little problem.

“But I remember when I was young and I’d get a new pair of shoes, and they were difficult to break in ... but after a while I’d get used to them and (when) they got used to me they were great. I think the system will be like that.”

Clerk of courts’ offices cannot remove the duplicate names, unless the jurors come in to the office. Baker said he hopes the state will consider changing that in the future and allowing his office and others to remove a duplicate name if all the other personal information matches.

In Hall County, the jury pool is at 134 percent of the county’s population who is 18 or older. That means that some of the more than 42,000 extra names could be duplicates. They also could be non-county or non-U.S. residents, Whitmire said. Some of the driver’s license information does not place residents in a county, which has caused people from outside Hall to receive summonses, he said.

The county has included a question on the jury questionnaire that asks residents if they’re a U.S. citizen to try and cut back on those on the list who cannot serve on a jury.

The new system and duplicate names have caused the clerk’s office to send out more summonses, Baker said.

While more summonses have been sent out, turnout has been about the same with 29 to 39 percent of Hall County residents reporting for jury duty from the last four selections.

Despite the extra summonses, the new jury pool has helped reduce mailing costs for the clerk’s office, Baker said. In the past, a questionnaire was sent out to people on the driver’s license list, but that is no longer required.

The clerk’s office has received more phone calls and questions about the new jury pool. There also is an increase in novice jurors, Whitmire said. Having those novice jurors has not caused any problems because judges treat all jurors as if its their first time, he said.

Thompson said having everyone in the jury pool is a great benefit to all.

“People are now absolutely sure to have their constitutional right to serve on a jury,” he said. “Also, when you spread the jury service out among the whole population people don’t get called very often. The opportunity that they would get called more than once is sort of random when there’s a bigger group.”

Baker echoed that sentiment.

“That’s a positive, that jury duty is spread out among the population,” he said. “In my opinion, so far, so good. I’m pleased it’s working so well.”

Thompson said those in legal cases also know that the new pool is “the best opportunity to have a jury of their peers for their case.” He also recognized there will be some legal challenges to the new system, but that was anticipated and is not unusual.

“Every litigant has the opportunity in their case to challenge the jury,” he said. “With change we expected that people would probably challenge.

“We want the jury system to be absolute and fundamentally fair.”