When Kathleen Nastri prepared for trials in the recent past, she espoused the virtues of jury duty to each prospective juror. She sold it as a privilege, an American right and a patriotic duty. These days, she's not making that pitch.
As soon as she hears that jurors are concerned about keeping their jobs, "those people are excused without any question," Nastri said.
Nastri is not alone in following that practice.
Many Connecticut trial lawyers say prospective jurors are begging off jury duty more often than ever because they're hesitant to spend time away from their jobs or job searches. The longer the trial is expected to be, the greater the reluctance to serve.
As a result, the time needed to select a jury is increasing significantly-sometimes doubling. That, in turn, is driving up the cost of some trials by thousands of dollars.
"They are afraid to be away from their job even if they're paid for their time because of the risk of layoffs," said Nastri, a plaintiffs' medical malpractice and personal injury attorney with Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder in Bridgeport. "People who are unemployed are unwilling to serve because they don't want to miss out on that slim chance that someone will call them about a job."
David W. Cooney, of RisCassi & Davis in Hartford, said he hears more people saying that they're expecting layoffs and are nervous about not being seen around the workplace by their bosses, even though state laws prohibit employers from firing someone for serving on a jury. "No one is immune from layoffs," Cooney said, "and absenteeism, even for a good reason, could lead to being laid off in the future.
"I don't think people's unwillingness to serve varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction," said Cooney, whose personal injury caseload primarily sends him to court in New Britain and Hartford. "It's pretty much the same everywhere in the state."
Michael D'Amico, a plaintiffs' attorney in Watertown, said he sees "droves of people" who are concerned about their finances and the effect of serving on a jury.
"We excuse them and then move on to the next person," D'Amico said. "This scenario is repeating itself juror after juror...It's a stark realization of how bad the unemployment situation is. You don't realize it until you have the opportunity to talk to people across various sectors."
D'Amico said he has encountered no resistance from defense counsel when it comes to automatically excusing potential jurors who are worried about finances. A distracted juror who is miffed about serving is a potential "ticking time bomb for either side," he said.
Nastri said people's concerns about their financial well-being are "having a huge effect" on the jury selection process.
"I never expected [the jury pool] to go from 35 potential jurors down to 10" in a matter of minutes based solely on financial worries, said Nastri. "Some days you're done by 2 o'clock because you run out" of potential jurors.
The types of cases in which juries were once seated within 10 days now require 15. Those that once took three days now can take double that amount, Nastri observed.
Financial excuses are not new, and self-employed citizens usually have received the benefit of the doubt from lawyers and judges. Nastri has heard people say that jury duty would negatively affect their co-workers at a major corporation because they were in the middle of a significant project.
"Four years ago, my response would be that I can't worry about that big corporation," she said. "Today if that's a concern, it's real...and I'm not putting you on my jury."
Karen "Kay" Berris, jury administrator for the state, said the state's 1-800 hotline for jurors has seen an increase in calls from people with questions expressing their concern with their employment status if they have to serve on a jury.
"For instance, they just started a job, what does that mean for them, that type of thing," said Berris. Another common concern potential jurors have is whether serving on a jury would prohibit them from receiving unemployment benefits.
Despite the questions and concerns expressed in calls, "I'm not noticing any changes in no-show jurors," said Berris.
For 2008, the state summoned 610,120 people for jury duty; 98,831 of them served a day or more; and 7,964 were selected for trial.
Despite cases where trial attorneys go through the entire jury pool in a day, the state does not expect to have to summon additional jurors. After all, many cases end up settling ahead of time and excess jurors are sent home within hours of their arrival.
Berris said that for 2009 she expects the number of selected jurors to be about the same. She said officials actually plan to summon fewer people for jury duty, somewhere around 560,000, with the expectation that the same number of last year will serve.
Berris said the state does not keep a record of those disqualifying from jury duty for economic or job-related reasons but certainly acknowledges that the growing worries are there amongst potential jurors. "Our concern is getting correct information out to the public so we can answer their concerns as best as we possibly can," Berris said.
Employers are not allowed to fire someone for attending jury duty and are required by statute to pay an employee for the first five days they serve on a jury. Employers also cannot require additional hours of work in light of the jury duty. After the five days, jurors are paid $50 per day by the state if employed full-time. If a juror is unemployed or working part-time, the state pays between $20 and $50 per day.
A brochure explaining jurors' rights are sent out to people with their summons.
Martha Triplett, a trial attorney at Delaney & Triplett in Wallingford, said during recent jury selections "there were several people who had job interviews lined up and they wanted to know exactly when the trial would be completed."
One man arrived at jury duty wearing a business suit, and he told Triplett that he was happy to have gone through voir dire early in the day. "He had a job interview in the afternoon, and he had been unemployed for three months," said Triplett, who excused the man from jury duty.
But not everyone is noticing the same dramatic impact of the economy on jury selection.
"On the whole, I haven't seen a great wave of change based on my most recent experiences," said Stewart Casper, of Casper & de Toledo in Stamford. "In a couple of cases, people were frustrated by the process [of job hunting] and didn't have any prospects so they didn't mind getting selected."
Ralph Monaco, a civil and commercial litigator with Conway & Londregan in New London, concurs. "More people are indicating that they're unemployed, but I haven't noticed a lot more," he said. "People may be a little more forceful in this economy in terms of pushing that issue, even for a short trial."
Despite the lengthier jury selection process, attorneys say the quality of juries is not diminishing. And several attorneys said they will endure the longer process if it means keeping individual voir dire in place.
The difference in the voir dire processes in state and federal courts can affect how much leniency potential jurors are granted. In state court civil actions, attorneys perform individual voir dire primarily without judges' involvement.
But in federal cases, voir dire involves the judge, and some are more conservative about excusing potential jurors. "The notion of financial hardship just does not hold sway in many [federal] courts," said Michael Stratton, of Stratton Faxon in New Haven. "The court's not going to tolerate excuses."
That makes it more challenging for attorneys, who must get sometimes reluctant jurors to stop thinking about their personal lives to focus on the case at hand. "I'm seeing people who are distracted and not in a position to give their full attention to a case," Stratton said. "You wonder if they're really listening."
Stratton also notices that jurors are much less patient with attorneys who tend to drag out trials, and that's forcing attorneys to be more efficient with their case presentations, which isn't a bad thing.
"Sometimes attorneys spend three, four or five hours on a direct examination. That's a huge mistake," Stratton said. "People get angry and bitter in this particular [economic] environment. It's a question of how much of their time you are demanding."