Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Grand Jury System and Time

Today's Chronicle ran a good editorial piece about the Grand Jury system, written by Joseph Richard Gutheinz, Jr. Gutheinz is a former grand juror who writes a well-informed and diplomatic article, while making the point that the grand jury system in Harris County needs to be changed. (NOTE: Of course, the Chronicle couldn't tolerate a well-written article that was diplomatic and done by someone who knew what they were talking about it, so they had to attach the title that the system was "a bad joke" in the headline (which I don't think accurately reflects the tone of the article written by Mr. Gutheinz).)

It's an interesting trick to write about the Grand Jury process, because everyone involved is sworn to absolute secrecy about what occurs behind closed doors -- an oath that is taken extremely seriously.

Mr. Gutheinz is correct in all his assertions, but I think it is worth noting that a lot of the problems within the Grand Jury system and who serves on it are caused by factors that don't have anything to do with intentional discrimination. The biggest factor that influences the way a Grand Jury is run from top to bottom is Time.

Those citizens that serve as Grand Jurors have to be able to give a significant amount of their time for the three month-long term that they will serve. During each Grand Jury Term, there will be five grand juries running at a time. The individual grand juries will meet twice a week, which means that on any given day of the week, there will be two grand juries meeting. Twelve people are on each grand jury and they must have a bare minimum of 9 there to make a quorum.

My point is that to serve on a grand jury, a grand juror has to make a serious commitment to take a lot of time out of their schedule for three months, and they can't just blow off showing up whenever they feel like it. Obviously, the citizen who works an hourly job and lives paycheck-to-paycheck is going to suffer a pretty big financial hardship by being a participant -- they just don't have the time.

Quite frankly, the job of a Grand Juror is almost tailored to retirees.

The Judges of Harris County who ultimately select the grand jurors are elected officials, and they don't want to tick off the general public by conscripting a citizen into service when that citizen really can't afford to serve. This leads to them selecting people that they know have the ability and desire to spend three months of their lives working as a grand juror. It is not unusual to see a judge struggling to come up with a long enough list to actually make that commitment. To my knowledge, the only judge in the CJC who actually just brings over a Grand Jury panel that is pulled from a true jury pool is Judge Mary Lou Keel.

I think that if the Harris County Criminal Justice System is going to ultimately reflect the community, that all the judges are going to have to go to Judge Keel's system of grand juror selection. We will just have to be prepared to deal with the hardships it will cause on those who ultimately get to serve.

The other aspect of the grand jury system where Time comes into play is in the presentation of the cases.

Grand Juries will hear hundreds of cases a day, presented by numerous prosecutors who will patiently (and sometimes impatiently) wait their turn to get an audience with the Grand Jury. Some of the cases a Grand Jury will hear are complicated. Witnesses and suspects are called, and ultimately a case is "pre-tried" to the Grand Jury before it is ever tried to a petit jury.

Others can be presented in record time.

Theoretically, on a simple "Buy/Bust" case (a street buy where an undercover narcotics officer will flag down a guy on the corner, and pay him about $20 and get a crack rock delivered to him), a prosecutor has a choice on how the case is presented:
1) the prosecutor could theoretically bring in the undercover officer to detail his recollection of the events. He or she could also bring in the chemist to testify about their lab standards and their findings on the crack rock. That could take about an hour.
2) a prosecutor could just state the facts in an approximately one minute synopsis, and then move on to the next case.

You can do the math on that. The prosecutors who are assigned to the Grand Jury Division will usually present about sixty cases each time they go before the grand jury. They can either take about an hour. Or they can take about two and a half days.

Do cases get presented shortly at Grand Jury? You could probably make a fairly easy argument that they are. That's the origin of the theory that a Harris County Grand Jury would indict a ham sandwich.

But until we start adding more hours to the day, I don't know how to solve that particular problem.


Thomas Hobbes said...

Why is it that many charges that easily could be handled through information are being presented to a grand jury? While you can't have more hours in a day, couldn't we decrease the demands on the hours we have?

Anonymous said...

Time isn't the problem, the self-centeredness of the judges is. Why is every other court in the state able to solve the problem but the judges of Harris County can't seem to manage the issue? Instead of having grand jurors trying to fit the court's schedule, isn't it time the courts serve the juror's needs? For example, why have the grand jury meet two days out of a week instead of one day? Need more grand jury time - schedule another one instead of making them meet twice a week. Why three months straigt instead of for a month or two? Why not have them meet on Saturday's instead of M-F so more blue collar workers are able to serve? Any business looking for customer's would set up hours that benefit the customer. How about the courts doing the same for their jurors?

The real problem is that the courts want the jurors to fit their schedule (and life) into the courts instead of vice versa.

Anonymous said...

I don't buy your arguments, AHCL. While it may be rare, petit juries sometimes have to sit for weeks. The bulk of your trials may only be one day, but the reality is that we expect the wheel to produce a potential jury to sit for as long as a trial may last, whatever the cost.

That is certainly more burdensome the 2 days a week of a grand jury. When we restrict grand jury membership to the hand-picked of the judge, you end up with what we have now: political activists and friends of the judge, mostly white and retired. I'm appalled at the number of Republican activists I know who've sat on grand juries for no other reason than their personal/political affiliations with the judge.

A Harris County Lawyer said...

Thanks for the great comments, folks!

Mr. Hobbes,
Many felony charges are handled by Information, and many cases plead out before reaching the indictment stage. However, if a felony case isn't indicted by 90 days, the Defendant is entitled to a bond he can make and get out. Also, a felony trial must be an indicted case (unless the Defendant waives indictment for the purposes of going to trial, which is unusual).

Anon 10:43,
I think you may be blame-shifting here. The reality is that virtually every government agency is going to operate during standard business hours. I don't think you can blame the judges for that. However, you do have an idea if a grand jury were to step up the times they met during the week. Again, it would be burdensome on the schedule, though.

Anon 1:31 a.m.,
You wouldn't be the first person not to buy my arguments :-) That being said, petit jurors don't volunteer. They are conscripted, which is what I was pointing out as the possible solution to diversity in the grand juries. I think if we relied on volunteers to do the petit jury, we'd probably get enough volunteers to try about three cases a year.

TxGoodie said...

If people are drafted for GJ service they are going to need medics standing by for all the veins that they'll open or the on-the-spot strokes when they hear THREE MONTHS is THEIR required "sentence".

Ha! These are the same folks that go online and search for ways to get out of jury duty.

These are the same folks that can't even turn their cell phones off in the assembly room.

I'm not sure I want to serve again. Let someone else have sexual assault of children with their morning donuts. Let someone else see the DA so affected by the suffering of the victim that they have to fight breaking down during their presentation.

Anonymous said...

Blame-shifting? Let me understand this. The grand jury process is screwed up so it's the jurors fault? So sorry but I don't think so. It's the responsibility of the courts to fix it...and they are the only ones to have the ability to do so.

As far as non-traditional hours, how do some cities manage to run a night court? I believe some JPs also have court sessions in the evening. And last I heard the cops and the jail still work weekends.

Actually various government agencies do work to cover the needs of those they serve. Instead of requiring airlines to only land M-F 8-5, CBP has inspectors available 24/7 if needed, for example.

The problem is that the courthouse refuses to think out of the box nor do they seem to look for solutions outside of courthouse. What is Dallas doing? San Francisco?
New York or Chicago? Even the Feds (though their case load is just a wee bit lighter!) might have some ideas.

Quit turning to people within the system for answers and look to business solutions for what basically is a management problem. To many judges tradition bound and self-interested only.

A Harris County Lawyer said...

I'm not blame shifting to the jurors. I'm blame-shifting to whoever created the 40 hour work week that typically runs Monday through Friday and from eight to five. I'm saying that you can't blame the judges for that.

I'm not really all that keen on looking to California or New York for any type of "guidance" on how to run our criminal justice system, but if you would like to, go right ahead. What would be the more interesting experiment would be for you to drum up some people that want to serve on the Grand Juries during "off" hours. Who here would like to work a 40 hour week, and then commit to an additional 16 hours a week on Saturday and Sunday?

I think you've got a lot of complaints, but no real solutions.

Anonymous said...

Who said anything about 16 hours? It doesn't have to be 16 hours. It's that kind of mindset that keeps coming out of the courthouse and isn't leading to solutions.

One grand jury could easily be scheduled on Saturday's ONLY with the court staff handling the jury working Tues through Saturday (They still get two days off in a row). A greater variety of people are free on weekends in our culture and I suspect many wouldn't mind serving a tour if it didn't impact their employment. Citizens take classes on Saturdays for a semester as an example. Our Lady of the Lake, Sam Houston, etc. offer degrees just on Saturday because that's when their community wants them.

But again, this is just an example. The point is the judges need to research it. Just saying it won't work doesn't cut it by any measure. Simply by going over to the jury pool and running some scientific surveys would give you an idea of what people could or would do.

I don't and never have claimed to have the solutions but I do believe that simple processes such as benchmarking, surveys, focused interviews, etc. can assist in finding some viable answers but the management team in the courthouse doesn't seem to recognize that.

Thanks, by the way, for the timely response.