Via El Paso Times
People living in far East El Paso County, including the Lower Valley, paid a disproportionate amount in Jury Duty Court costs compared to other portions of the county, according to an analysis by the El Paso Times.
Residents living in San Elizario paid the most jury duty costs per household — about four times more than the rate per household in the Downtown ZIP code around the courthouse, according to an El Paso Times analysis of county data from 2012 to earlier this year, when the county temporarily suspended collecting court costs from people who failed to show up for jury duty.
The state Office of Court Administration said the court cost assessments of up to $300 per person might not be allowed under state law. The county is planning to seek clarification from Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott on the issue.
Records obtained by the Times showed that between 2003 and this year, the county’s special Jury Duty Court collected $620,000 in fines from people who failed to show up for jury duty, but also collected more than $6.2 million in court cost assessments from those people.
A Times computer-assisted analysis of Jury Duty Court data showed that people who lived on the fringes of El Paso and outside the city limits were far more likely to pay fines and court costs than El Pasoans living in Central, West Side and Northeast neighborhoods closer to the courthouse.
Residents of ZIP codes in far East El Paso paid at least three times as much in court costs for missing jury duty compared with those living in the 79901 ZIP code, and twice as much as residents living in ZIP codes in West, Central and Northeast El Paso who lived closer to the courthouse.
That disparity could point to transportation or other issues being a barrier to jury duty service.
District Judge Maria Salas-Mendoza, who headed a Council of Judges committee that oversaw changes to the Jury Duty Court policies and procedures, said such a determination would be “speculation.”
But County Commissioner Vincent Perez, who represents the eastern part of the county, disagrees. Many areas of the county outside the city limits lack public transportation.
“Jury duty is an important civic responsibility, and all citizens should take this responsibility seriously,” Perez said. “However, many of the poorest residents in our community who are willing to serve live in neighborhoods that are an hour or more away from the courthouse, and there are often no public transportation options.”
When asked if judges are looking at the reasons why people don’t show up for jury duty and for possible solutions to the problem, Salas-Mendoza said: “Every single case gets that kind of consideration. No one is ever held in contempt without consideration of their reasons.”
Salas-Mendoza also said it would be “incorrect to assume that the reason that all persons in one area code were found in contempt had the same reason for failing to appear,” and the Council of Judges hasn’t examined any trend in lack of transportation among those who fail to report for jury duty.
The Council of Judges is working with El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal on drafting a request for a Texas attorney general’s opinion on whether it is legal to assess jury duty contempt court costs, and whether those costs should follow a criminal or civil case fee schedule.
In June, visiting state Judge Jerry Woodard, 83, who had presided over the Jury Duty Court, issued an order stopping the practice of collecting about $300 in court costs from people found in contempt of court for failing to answer a jury duty summons.
The order was made after questions arose surrounding the legality of assessing the court costs. Woodard retired shortly after issuing the order.
Many times, court costs were levied on top of fines of up to $1,000, but lawyers with the state’s Office of Court Administration recently told county officials that it may not be legal to charge court costs for jury duty contempt citations.
After questions about the legality of those court costs arose, many people began asking about possible reimbursements.
In 2012, San Elizario resident Martha Dominguez was scheduled for jury duty. Dominguez, who works as a part-time secretary at San Lorenzo Church in Clint, said she forgot she had jury duty. She called a half-hour before she was scheduled to appear in court to tell them that she was not going to make it on time.
Dominguez, 59, said she had a car, but that she could not have driven from San Elizario to the Downtown courthouse in time for jury duty.
Three months later Dominguez said she had to pay $292 in fines and court costs.
“I’m not very happy about it because I did try to call that morning. I did try to tell them that I wasn’t able to go because of the time that I called, and the distance,” Dominguez said.
Dominguez, who worked for the Ysleta Independent School District for 36 years before retiring in 2009, said that if the court system allows it, she would seek reimbursement.
“They were calling every six months and I always showed up,” Dominguez said about her jury duty service before she was fined. “I think they should be nicer to first offenders.”
Irazulema Armendariz, 33, said she lost her paperwork when she had jury duty two years ago.
“I couldn’t make it because I lost the paperwork. I forgot the date and everything,” said the Fabens resident.
“For me, it (the fine) was an exaggeration of money because for me it’s a lot of money to charge just because you forgot to go or you misplaced your papers,” Armendariz said. According to an analysis by the El Paso Times, Armendariz had fines and court costs totaling $292.
Armendariz is a volunteer at Fabens Elementary and said she relies on her husband for income. She added that with three children, it’s easy to forget things. She added that she would have appreciated a follow up courtesy call to remind her of her scheduled jury duty.
“I told them I do deserve the fine, but it was too much to pay,” she said.
El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar said Commissioners Court won’t make any decision on refunds until they see the attorney general’s opinion, which could take months.
“As people call to inquire, all we can do is document their information while we wait for the opinion,” Escobar said.
She said commissioners have yet to receive a copy of the revised Jury Duty Court policies and procedures.
Last month, presiding Judge Stephen Ables of the Sixth Administrative Judicial Region appointed visiting judge Max Higgs, a former El Paso County probate judge, to replace Woodard. Salas-Mendoza said court costs are still not being assessed.
According to the new Jury Duty Court policies and procedures, people who don’t report to jury duty and don’t fill out a jury duty questionnaire will be summoned to a “show cause” hearing, where they will complete the questionnaire and be given a new jury duty date.
If people do not show up to the show cause hearing, a judge may issue a warrant for their arrest.
Salas-Mendoza said Jury Duty Court staff are keeping track of people who don’t fill out questionnaires but show up for jury duty, and the number of times people have skipped out on jury duty.
Perez said he is concerned that as the county collected millions of dollars in court costs, court-appointed attorneys have been seeking a pay raise.
“While these high fees were being imposed, many of the same judges who support the jury court were advocating for a pay increase (to) $90 an hour for judge-appointed attorneys that is going to cost taxpayers an additional $2 million a year, and likely result in a tax increase if no cuts are made,” Perez said. “The public needs to understand that many of the leaders they elect, such as judges and others, also make financial decisions that impact the community.”
According to a recent study by Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse of Central Texas, El Paso County has one of the highest jury duty participation rates in Texas. Last year, about 33 percent of people eligible for jury duty participated in jury service compared with nearly 29 percent in Bexar County and 18.5 percent in Dallas County, where a jury duty court similar to the one in El Paso has been proposed.
Adriana M. Chávez may be reached at 546-6117.