Contempt Hearing for No-Show Jurors
As testimony continued in Judge Donald Molloy’s courtroom this afternoon, another Grace-related hearing occurred in the magistrate’s courtroom on the first floor of the federal courthouse. Due to an unusually high number of no-show jurors at the Grace trial voir dire on February 19, Judge Molloy asked Federal Magistrate Keith Strong to visit from Great Falls to hold a contempt “show cause” hearing. Failure to show up for jury duty constitutes contempt of court; five members of the Grace trial jury pool did not appear on February 19. Because these contemptuous acts occurred outside of the view of Judge Molloy, each absentee juror was ordered to show the Court either why they were not in contempt, or alternatively, to give evidence that would mitigate the Court’s punishment. An assistant United States attorney and a few lawyers from the Federal Defender’s Office were also present.
Judge Strong began by summarizing every citizen’s duty to serve on juries, and explained that federal courts are required by law to hold such contempt hearings. He then informed everyone present that failure to appear for jury duty can result in a fine of up to $1,000, three days in jail, and community service. He pointed out that every juror who ended up on the final jury had made a significant time sacrifice, a sacrifice these defendants had failed to make. Judge Strong said that although his court in Great Falls pulls jurors from as far away as 400 miles — the farthest of any district in the country — no one has ever failed to appear jury duty in his two years on the bench. He emphasized the rarity of dealing with five absentee jurors. He then apprised the defendants that they had all the rights of a criminal defendant, including the right to counsel and a jury trial, although they could each elect to “take care of it today.”
Of the five absentee jurors, Judge Strong found the contempt of the first three to have been “not willful” and fined each $100. Two of these slept late and immediately called the court on the morning of the 19th, while another testified about the difficulties in delivering mail to her rural address. He admonished them that their conduct was wrong, and confirmed with each that they would not make such a mistake again.
The fourth defendant had moved since receiving the initial summons, and failed to change her address. Judge Strong found that, while her contempt was not willful, the court had mailed the specifics of her jury duty to the exact address she provided, and her failure to receive that notice rested solely on her shoulders. Therefore, her punishment was a $200 fine, due to the more egregious nature of her contempt.
The fifth defendant presented a situation unique to the experience of the court or the attorneys in the room. This absentee juror is solely responsible for the care of her 93-year-old mother, and felt that she had no choice but to ignore her summons. Upon receipt of her first summons, she sent a letter to the court explaining her situation and her belief that she should not have to appear for jury duty. The clerk of court’s office made a phone call and sent a letter, informing the defendant that she would still have to appear, regardless of her other obligations. She testified to having sent another letter to the court, to which she received no response, and to “hoping it was taken care of.”
This greatly vexed Judge Strong. While the defendant clearly felt she had no choice but to ignore the summons, she remained resolute in her willful and remorseless contempt of court. Judge Strong informed the defendant of the “troublesome” nature of her testimony, given that she had essentially carved out her own private exception to a federal court’s order. Judge Strong reminded her that jurors do not serve only when convenient. He went on to explain that the American judicial system rests on the idea that juries consist of a cross-section of society, and it functions for that very reason.
Furthermore, he pointed out, every potential juror that had attended on February 19 had personal obligations just as she did. Were all citizens to find their own ways out of jury duty, the American judicial system would not function.
In an obvious effort to allow the defendant to salvage her credibility, Judge Strong asked her if she would miss jury duty in the future, to which she replied that would “consider doing it again” if her mother’s health required it. An exasperated Judge Strong pointed out that the defendant had been able to attend today, so her theory that she had to be with her mother at all times was not credible. At this point he appeared ready to impose a sentence fit to punish a willful and contrary contemnor, but stopped to ask the U.S. attorney for his recommendations. The U.S. attorney stated that the defendant was perhaps confused as to the nature of her jury duty on February 19, and had perhaps erroneously thought appearing on February 19 would have resulted in her immediate sequestration for several months. The U.S. attorney thought that such a misapprehension should mitigate her punishment. Judge Strong commended the U.S. attorney’s interest that “justice be done,” acknowledging that the U.S. attorney had just made a compelling argument for the defendant–another unique occurrence. Judge Strong then stated that, based on the government’s recommendation, the defendant would be fined $250, a substantially smaller amount than he had originally considered.
After determining there was no other business, Judge Strong adjourned the hearing.
-Mark Lancaster 5:40 PM
Posted: March 4th, 2009 under Law.