Working from home, attending class from home, performing my civic duty from home? I was so surprised to receive an official jury summons from the Bexar County Central Jury this month because the idea of a large court house hall packed tightly with 300 plus people could not be Covid-19 conscious. Then I looked at the location: “ Virtual Courtroom (report from home via Zoom).”
I completed the questionnaire online easily enough at the url provided, . The next day I received a phone call from the courthouse to inform me that online and night time classes did not count towards the exception and that I was still scheduled to attend.
I received another email that the date to appear had been pushed to the next Monday, a foreshadow of a pattern that would be repeating throughout the whole process.
The next Monday rolls around and I find myself in a zoom meeting with over 150 people at 8 a.m. The “mute your mics please” ensues. The assistant to the judge does her best to wrangle people into separate group rooms which are foreign to many users. A roll call begins and the assistant explains the situation to each person and helps change their screen name if they do not know how to. The camera must be on in Zoom in order to see the judge which presents problems for users who are logging in with their phones.
“My husband set this up for me,” says an older lady who is not sure if her camera is on or off and stunned that the assistant can see her.
It is my turn on the roll call and as soon as I turn on my mic, my cat begins to scream like the long haired siamese she is. The assistant asks if there is a cat in the room and I say yes. She requests to see the cat and I am in a whole new world where my cat is in a courtroom.
After much confusion and a very long roll call, we are let back into the main zoom room minus the people who have requested further exemptions. The assistant introduces the four judges who will be overseeing the cases we may be assisting with. The judges appear in front of a green screened image of their courtrooms with short introductions and many thank yous.
One of the judges explains that our group is only the third group to participate in virtual jury duty and we are the first group to be serving two cases instead of just one.
The assistant reads out the list of assigned jurors and I am #6. She explains that anyone who has been listed who only has a cell phone to zoom conference with must call the number listed in the chat to pick up a tablet rental from the physical courthouse in order to appear in the virtual courthouse. People raise their hands and say they live far and they may not be able to pull that off in the less than 8 hours allotted before the next day’s appearance.
I have a laptop and I log out. I am good to go, but sacrificing another morning the very next day seemed like a reach. Jury duty was just one long day, but now it’s two long mornings. I think about the people who may not have flexible work schedules and may not be able to pull off a second morning. I get an email that says the appearance has been moved to next monday instead of the next day.
Then the next week, I receive an email that explains the case has been settled and I am now excused from jury duty. I am excited to not have to do this hopefully ever again, since this was my second time and I am not even thirty yet.
I had initially thought that this was a hoax, but it was real and still in development. There are a lot of opportunities to improve the process. First, I think it would be wise to ask people what device they will be using on the initial questionnaire so the court can get a good idea of who will be needing rentals and or exempt them on that at the beginning. It seems like a lot of trouble to get people downtown for an expensive table rental that has a good chance of maybe not getting returned.
Secondly, I think more heads up can be given about the second date. I was blindsided by that, but my boss is awesome and it was no problem to make those arrangements. I know we cannot say the same for people in other work situations. The $6 dollar check does not cover TWO days of missing work, let alone one.
I was happy to participate in the process and I think we all learned a lot. I hope my experience will prepare you for your virtual jury summons since we will probably be doing this for at least a few more seasons. There are scammers who are calling bexar county citizens, “informing” them of their failure to appear at jury duty and requesting money upfront or they will be arrested. This will never happen from the legitimate court house.
The Bexar County Court has put out an official notice that reads, “While someone who failed to appear for jury duty may face penalties, there will never be a telephonic request to pay a fine at a commercial store or threats of arrest.”
If you suspect something fishy about an unofficial notice or phone call from the courthouse please reach out to the Central Jury Office at (210) 335-2667.