A dozen people sat nervously in Payson's superior courtroom Thursday afternoon wondering what was going to happen to them. The reason -- they skipped out on jury duty.
"Most of these people who were ordered here today were summoned for jury duty three times and did not respond," Superior Court Judge Robert Duber said. "Not responding to a jury summons can be treated as a crime. It's disobeying a court order."
Duber said jury duty ditchers can be fined up to $500 or actually be picked up by the sheriff's office and physically taken to the courthouse.
Ordering jury duty ditchers to the court in numbers is a new strategy, Duber said.
"Today I am doing those north of the Salt (River). Tomorrow, it's everyone south of the Salt (River)," he said.
Gila County has more jury trials per elected judge than any other county in the state, Duber said, and jury duty apathy has compromised the justice system.
"Four weeks ago, we had a criminal trial," Duber said. "The defendant exercised his right to a speedy trial and we did not have enough jurors. As a result he made a plea bargain and got a better deal because he couldn't be given a trial he was entitled to."
Duber said there have been other trials in which the lack of potential jurors forced attorneys to accept jurors they might have excused had there been more people to choose from.
"The jury commissioner has advised me that you have disobeyed a summons to appear in court," Duber told the crowd. "This is unlawful and in violation of Arizona State Statutes."
Duber explained that state law had changed, making it more difficult for people to get out of jury duty.
"If you serve, you serve once every two years," Duber said. "If you request an excuse, it must be done in advance and you must have documentation to back it up."
Duber said a medical excuse requires a note from a doctor or proof of a disability. To claim economic hardship, a person needs to prove that they will not be able to make basic living expenses.
"We are talking about someone who makes minimum wage -- someone at or below poverty level," Duber said. "There has to be documentation to show it."
The vast majority of trials take place in Globe because of lack of facilities to accommodate a jury trial in Payson. But Thursday, a civil trial was taking place in the old courthouse in the sheriff's office complex.
"Only one juror is from Payson," Duber said, making the point that northerners aren't the only ones who must travel to do jury duty.
"I did a trial in Apache County where one juror traveled 300 miles for jury duty," Duber said. "It's not an excuse."
During Duber's lecture to the crowd, a woman said she had no means of transportation and that is why she failed to appear.
"We can generally assist with transportation," Duber said, "either riding with another juror or the sheriff's office can sometimes transport people."
Duber gave those in the courtroom two options -- they could talk to Jury Commissioner Sylvia Padilla who was seated in the courtroom and make a date to show up in Globe or they could try to make a case to the judge for getting out of jury duty.
"Either make a date with Ms. Padilla, or present evidence to me showing why you should be excused," Duber said.
Duber warned that if someone wanted to plead their case and he saw no evidence, they would be sanctioned and they would have to serve. He then went to his chambers for a short break to let the crowd ponder their choices.
No one chose to face the judge since he made it clear that if they had an excuse, it better be a good one. A line began to form in front of Padilla's desk.
"Pick a day, and come," Duber said.