March 17, 2015
By Lisa Falkenberg

On a recent rainy morning, a 36-year-old state district judge strolls bright-eyed into a large room of captive Harris County potential trial jurors and gives his best pitch.

“Good morning, everybody, my name is Ryan Patrick,” says the tall, slender jurist with a newscaster countenance. “I’m the judge of the 177th district court. Don’t worry, none of you are coming with me right now.”

Patrick is hoping to persuade the dozens of good citizens who showed up for jury duty to volunteer for three months of it. It’s a hard sell, but if proposed new legislation becomes law this year, even more Texans would need to accept the offer.

Patrick launches his short spiel, part of a ritual some judges call “fishing for grand jurors.” Patrick explains that current law allows several ways to pick grand jurors.

“I can bring over groups of you to my court room, like I would for a regular jury,” he explains, “but instead of asking you if you’ve got anything to do for the next three, four, five days, … it’s ‘What you got going on for the next three months, two days a week?’ ”

Jurors let out a quiet, collective groan.

Patrick goes another route: He visits jury rooms, which often represent a diverse swath of the county’s population, and asks for volunteers to serve on the secretive panels that decide whether there’s probable cause to indict suspects accused of everything from drug crimes to murder. Those interested fill out forms, which will be vetted by “commissioners” appointed by the judge. A few dozen are given to the judge to summon.

It’s a hybrid of the much-maligned “pick-a-pal” system, in which judges choose commissioners, or pals, to find grand jurors. This antiquated system has led to elite grand juries that are older, less diverse and often law enforcement-friendly.

Judges who want a fairer system use regular jury pools. Now, only five of the 22 felony court judges do not, says Vickie Long, business process manager with the Administrative Office of the District Courts.

In a few minutes, Patrick covers the basics: Grand juries meet from 8:30-9 a.m. to noon, twice a week. Pay is $40 per day. The county covers parking, but not lunch if sessions go late. Perks include tours of the crime lab, jail, morgue.

“Everybody I’ve ever met who has served on a grand jury in the past has found it a very rewarding experience,” Patrick tells one group.

When he asks who wants an application, more than a dozen hands go up in each room.

As Patrick is leaving, an elderly man in the front row, wearing Velcro-strap sneakers and using a walker, asks to make a comment: “The news media, the TV, everybody gives y’all a bad name about choosing your pals for the grand jury. They’ve never worked with you.”

Participation a concern

“Thank you, I appreciate that,” Patrick tells him. “My job is to follow the law, follow the rules as best I can.”

Patrick turns to the crowd: “I did not tell him to say that.”

Maybe not, but the comment perfectly summarized the reason I suspect Patrick invited me on his fishing trip. His system is far from the unfair one I’ve detailed over the past year. And although Patrick says he’s neutral about a bill requiring judges to pick grand jurors the same way they pick trial jurors, he seems a little concerned that a new law would ban a hybrid system that works well.

Patrick also worries that truly random juries may have attendance problems. And, considering that less than a third of Harris County residents summoned for jury duty actually show up, Patrick speculated that “we’re going to eat up” jurors faster if we draw grand jurors from the same pools.

His concerns are well taken. But I think that if 49 other states and the federal government can make the random system work, Texas can, too.

‘It’s just a balancing act’

While I admire the efforts of Patrick and others who “fish” for diverse grand juries, doing the right thing shouldn’t be a choice for each judge. No suspect should be at the mercy of a judge who chooses badly.

Still, the latest version of the bill, which passed a Senate committee last week, would give judges discretion even in a random system. They wouldn’t have to accept the first 12 jurors who came along. They could tailor the panels with an eye toward diversity and jurors’ availability.

Running out of jurors doesn’t seem a problem, either.

“We can handle it,” said District Clerk Chris Daniel, who says the switch would have a minimal impact on his office. “It’s just a balancing act.”

Patrick’s fishing trip resulted in a decent catch: a diverse-looking group of 32 volunteers filled out applications to be first-time grand jurors. Hopefully, a new, more random system would generate that kind of interest, along with a perception of fairness, for every court.

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