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Texas county developing
online juror questionnaire

Point, Click, Serve

Jury duty. The words alone can send some people over the edge with visions of lost time at work or at play. A fair trial may be guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, but it does not guarantee that everyone involved in the jury-selection process will like it.

One Texas county, however, has placed itself atop a list of local governments trying to make that process a little more palatable.

Several counties offer jury information online at their official Web sites. For example, Bexar County's, www.bexar.org, includes a list of answers to commonly asked questions including the location of the courthouse, directions to the facility and exemptions and qualifications for potential jurors. Dallas County's Web site, www.dallascounty.org, includes the same jury information, but also contains instruction on how to claim an exemption and what to expect in response.

Travis County, however, offers jury duty information through its Web site that is believed to be one of a kind--for now.

An "I" in jury
Travis County's Web site, www.co.travis.tx.us/, contains a link to the district clerk's Web site, and what is believed to be the only online jury impaneling form in the U.S. Called "I-Jury"--the "I" standing for Internet--the service allows prospective jurors to respond to their jury summons--which arrives by regular mail--from virtually anywhere.

"We are the first county in the country to be using it," says Travis County District Clerk Amalia Rodriguez-Mendoza. "No one but Travis County is doing it."

I-Jury was born essentially out of necessity rather than invention. The traditional "cattle call" of jury impaneling had to be moved when the county learned the coliseum it used was due to be torn down, and a new site was needed. The county is currently leasing the Crockett Center.

"We were asked to find an alternate location and we had to ask ourselves, 'what are we going to do?'" says Rodriguez-Mendoza. "Then the idea of the Internet came up."

Since the move was not immediate, there was time to get some feedback on whether or not an Internet-based system would work, and there was a reliable crowd to ask.

"We began conducting surveys of people at the coliseum, four surveys in all," Rodriguez-Mendoza says. "Of the people who responded, 80-85 percent said they would use [I-Jury] if it was available."

Tish Hinojosa Elliott, a Travis County resident and former attorney, has used the I-Jury system and found it helpful.

"As a former attorney," says Hinojosa Elliott, "I've been on every end of the jury impanelment process, and the most appealing thing about I-Jury was the convenience. It alleviated the huge cattle call process. Now, you can do it from home or work or wherever."

Hinojosa Elliott says as a juror, "you have all kinds of questions about 'what about this?' or 'what about that?' and the Web site had answers to just about every question I could come up with."

How it works
The "front end" of the I-Jury program has been up and running since March 2002. The front end, in this case, refers to the users' ability to submit their response to their jury summons via the Travis County Jury Impaneling questionnaire. That questionnaire generates a response from the district clerk's office, a response that is currently generated by a person. The "back end" of the program, which is not yet available, would generate that response automatically.

Jury summons are still sent out by mail and the recipients can either respond in kind, actually go to the courthouse or they can use the I-Jury system. The questionnaire contains not only qualification and exemption standards but also allows the potential jurors to specify what dates would prohibit jury service, even postponement of service for up to 90 days.

The initial response by Travis County jurors has created a lot of work for Rodriguez-Mendoza and her staff but she says, "this is the type of convenience people are looking for." She adds that every effort is made to accommodate requests.

Rodriguez-Mendoza says of the summons sent out each month, they are seeing responses via the I-Jury system about 70 percent of the time, which is almost unheard of.

"[Industry] experts say 10-15 percent is the norm for a new technology like this," she says. The I-Jury inbox averages more than 1,300 incoming messages a day, and Rodriguez-Mendoza says they manage to issue between 18,000 to 20,000 responses a month.

"We're real excited about it, and we're able to take our experiences and share it with other counties who are thinking about implementing something like this," she says.

Spread it around
Travis County is working with TexasOnline--the state's portal to the World Wide Web--to aid some of its online services, including voter registration and the listing of polling locations. The goal is to have an I-Jury form housed at the Web site, www.texasonline.com, which ultimately could be used by other counties besides Travis.

Rodriguez-Mendoza says the TexasOnline Commission was a little skeptical of the percentage of people who would use the new system, but she is confident that early returns will prove its worthiness.

Phil Barrett, director of TexasOnline, says early ideas for the marriage between the I-Jury form and TexasOnline include hosting the questionnaire on the site, then having it link to an individual county's Web site. He says it's still too early to tell what will happen, but there have been some interested parties.

"We have seen some general interest from counties in the state," says Barrett, "But right now we"re still waiting to see how much there will be."

Barrett says he hopes to have the questionnaire on the site by late 2002, but no firm timetable is set.

There are many counties in Texas already with Web sites that could benefit from the centralized I-Jury questionnaire. Many existing county sites contain contact information for various county officials, from judges to district clerks.

It was the use of e-mail that led Lubbock County District Clerk Jean Ann Stratton to think about the possibility of an Internet-based jury system.

"E-mail is a whole lot easier than even answering the telephone," says Stratton. "You don't have to listen to the ring or even speak with the right person to ultimately have that e-mail answered."

Stratton says it all started with simple, random e-mails from county residents with questions about their juror summons, usually about exemptions from service. As the availability of Internet access grew, so did the volume of e-mails, at a rate of about 300 a month, handled by Stratton and one other person.

"I started out [answering e-mails] myself in my spare time," Stratton says. "We could handle twice the number that we have coming in currently. We've been taking excuses and exemption requests by regular e-mail and I saw no reason why the juror questionnaire couldn't go through the same process."

Stratton devised an online juror questionnaire for Lubbock County jurors--similar to the one employed by Travis County--but it is still not in use.

"On it we ask for phone numbers, addresses and e-mail addresses so we can contact the jurors with their assignments," she says.

To be useful, the questionnaire needs to be linked to the county's Web page and to do that it needs to be approved by the county's six district judges, which has not yet happened. The inclusion of a questionnaire on the TexasOnline site could give counties the chance to use the system, or perhaps, in the case of Lubbock County, even tap into something it already has at its disposal.

"I could use it tomorrow if it were linked to the county's Web page," Stratton says. "Everything is in place. My clerk is ready. My jury manager is ready. I'm ready."

Clint Shields

I-savings

Like many jurors, Travis County jurors can either be paid for their service--six dollars a day during the impanelling process or $10 a day if actually selected to serve on a jury--or choose to donate that money to a number of county or state causes.

According to Travis County District Clerk Amalia Rodriguez Mendoza, one benefit of the I-Jury online impanelling form is it saves money, since the personal appearance for impanelling never takes place.

Rodriguez Mendoza estimates the online form has, since it went active in March 2002, saved the county at least $50,000, money that can then be directed towards further development of the I-Jury software. She says early estimates for the complete project, which is in what she calls "Phase One" right now, ultimately will cost almost $500,000 to develop. "Phase Two," or the back-end system, would allow the program to handle the jury assignment process automatically, something that is still handled by people with the system as it operates now.

She says the savings incurred this year alone will allow her office to "add one additional person to help with the requests we receive." Fewer impanelling sessions also means less money spent on leases for a facility. Travis County leases the Crockett Center for impanelling purposes, and Rodriguez Mendoza says I-Jury has resulted in fewer sessions and saved at least $24,000 in leasing costs.