San Antonio Express News: Civil district judge gets a taste of jury duty

judge diaz at jury duty

Monique Diaz spent the better part of a day in Bexar County’s Central Jury Room, but not because it was her turn in the monthly rotation to be supervising judge.

Instead, Diaz was among the hundreds that began showing up Tuesday in the basement of the Cadena-Reeves Justice Center, where they waited for a number to be called so they could fulfill their civic responsibility: jury duty.

It isn’t unusual for a judge, lawyer or anyone who works at the justice center to be called for jury duty. What made Diaz’s situation special was that she should have been greeting and instructing the potential jurors that day.

“I’ve never seen it happen in 25 years, so this is a first,” said Judge Peter Sakai, who presides over the 225th Civil District Court. “Honestly, considering the way the computer generates the rotation lists, she just hit it.”

She can’t be judge and jury, Diaz laughed. As a member of the judiciary, she could have claimed an exemption, but Diaz chose to report for duty so she could see how the process is done.

Her colleague, Civil District Judge Michael E. Mery, subbed in for her in the jury room.

Diaz, presiding judge of the 150th Civil District Court since January 2019, hears mostly personal injury cases that are decided by jurors. She also is a co-chair of the Commission on Collaborative Strategies to Prevent, Combat and Respond to Domestic Violence.

She said that when she received her summons, she was curious and excited.

“I tell the jurors how jealous I am because I have never served,” she said. “I am pleased to see this part of the justice process.”

Diaz began her day about 7:30 a.m., in front of the Paul Elizondo Tower. A half-hour early, she didn’t face the long lines that at times spill along the sidewalk in front of the Elizondo building, the Bexar County Courthouse and the Cadena-Reeves Justice Center when jurors arrive.

The judge documented her experience on social media. Diaz greeted her Facebook followers via video shot by her chief of staff, Noah Fuentes, and posted in English and Spanish on Twitter. She also sported the white, round button with the county seal that says: JUROR.

Wanting the full experience, she ditched her usual parking space for one at the county’s garage.

Diaz said she speaks with her jury panels upon the completion of a trial to see if she can improve theexperience. Seeing it from the front end, though, gave her perspective, she said.

“It’s a struggle for working-class people and families,” she said, but touted the American justice system as the best in the world.

The United States and Texas Constitutions guarantee everyone the right to a trial by an impartial jury of their peers — whether it is a criminal or civil case. Serving on a jury often is described as one of the most important duties that a citizen can perform.

Prospective jurors are pulled randomly from voter and driver’s registrations, according to the county’s Jury Services web page. Once they arrive, they are instructed to fill out a section on the summons that ultimately will be used by attorneys on both sides of the case to screen the potential panelist.

The form also has information about exemptions to service. For example, people older than 70 do not have to serve. People who care for children or the elderly also may be released from duty.

The system is set up to call people about every three years. Shirley Resler, 59, disagreed, stating it seems she gets called “all the time.”

“They say it’s luck of the draw, but I don’t know about that,” she said, shortly after she was released at noon. “My husband got called one time and was released before he got” to the court, she laughed.

A former educator, Resler once served as a juror on a drug case.

“It went on for about four days,” she said. “To me, that was forever.”

Despite the inconvenience, waiting and potential to get chosen again, Resler compared jury duty to voting as a right many fought to have. She said she believes in the system, and if she were ever party to a case, “I’d want the jury to show up.”

People who ignore their summons are subject to a contempt action and may be fined from $100 to $1,000, according to the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure.

Julieta Schulze, chief central jury bailiff for Bexar County, said her department sends out about 5,000 summons per week for county and district court juries for criminal and civil cases.

On Monday, Schulze said she had 650 people and expected to see as many as 580 on Tuesday.

“Not everyone shows up, but from our projected amount, we get pretty close to 95 percent to 98 percent,” she said.

Juries for capital murder trials in which the death penalty is considered are different. As many as 1,000 people may be called for just for one case, and it can take weeks to seat a panel of 12 with two alternates.

After about seven hours, Diaz was released a little after 3 p.m.

“Sadly, this little piece of paper in front of me means that I was released without getting picked. So, I will have to wait three years before I can be considered to serve again as a juror here in Bexar County.”

Diaz still can be summoned on the federal, justice of the peace or grand jury levels.

Five panels ended up being sent to courtrooms, Diaz said, with two ultimately going on to jury selection, known as voir dire.

This story originally appeared in the San Antonio Express News, you can read it here.

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