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Free Popcorn And A Movie? Just Another Day On Jury Duty

Juror assembly room.

It's Juror Appreciation Week in Mecklenburg County, so court officials are offering free popcorn and movies to liven up the long wait for potential jurors. But if you didn't know better you might think every week is Juror Appreciation week at the Mecklenburg County Courthouse. Surround sound, big screen TVs and free popcorn are the norm here. "It's totally opposite of what I expected," said one juror on duty this week. "I won't have anything negative to say about jury duty. They make us feel really comfortable with the seats, the snack machines, the popcorn and the Miss Pacman." Yes, she said "Miss Pacman." There's pinball, foozball and a pool table, too. Movies play at 10 and 2. And there's a business center where a dozen jurors tap away on their laptops and blackberries. "This is the first time I've been to the new courthouse," says another juror. (We can't name any of the jurors because they may still end up sitting on a jury.) "It's much nicer than sitting in the older room with nothing to do." No kidding, says Charles Keller, who handles outreach for Mecklenburg County courts. "We didn't have any windows in the (old) space. . . it was a dark, bleak, kind of space," recalls Keller with a laugh. "Now we have lots of windows, lots of natural light." 2007 was the year everything changed for jury duty. That's when the new $148 million Mecklenburg County Courthouse opened. Keller says they surveyed jurors to see what should be in the new assembly room, which cost $1.4 million to build. And Keller says nothing jurors asked for was out the question. In fact, the court system has even considered offering chair massages and manicures, but "for one reason or another, those things haven't panned out." They did recently add a lactation room for nursing mothers who might otherwise be excused from jury service. Also, there's a daycare. Jurors and members of the public expected in court can drop their kids off for free. Lack of childcare is another thing that tends to get in the way of people showing up for jury duty. The county court system obviously spends money to run the day care center, but Keller says the popcorn for jurors is donated and the other extras don't require any tax dollars. But why go to such lengths for jurors? Well, for one thing, Keller says more people are showing up for their summons. The no-show rate is 4 percent today. In the old court house it was 12 percent. "It was probably the best public relations Mecklenburg County could have done is to provide such a nice facility for networking and socializing and talking," says my new friend Bill Gallagher. We met two weeks ago while on jury duty. When my summons arrived in the mail, I was actually excited. A day off of work, munching popcorn on a comfy couch sounded pretty good. But the night before I was supposed to report for duty, I read the fine print and noticed I hadn't been summoned to Mecklenburg County Court. I was wanted in U.S. District Court which is a very different experience. Bill Gallagher thought so too. "Basically, waiting in federal court, it was a room with a plasma TV and chairs and no windows," says Gallagher. We waited in that room for almost three hours the first day of our summons. At one point, an inane 30-minute infomercial for mail-order food came on. All 75 of us hapless jurors sat watching in silence. We weren't allowed to have laptops, cell phones or iPods. Recording equipment wasn't allowed either, so I met up with Bill at a restaurant later to talk about the experience. He's done jury duty for federal court and Mecklenburg County. He says the Mecklenburg County jury duty experience felt more "efficient." "The jurors appeared on one day and basically they were selected that day and those not selected went home," says Gallagher. "(In) the federal system we came one day and if we were not seated on a case we came back the following Monday and some of those jurors were seated for a case later on." The drawn out process was tough for Bill as a small businessman. He runs Superior School of Real Estate. And the thing neither of us fully grasped before reporting for duty was that our federal jury summons was good for three weeks. We could be called back repeatedly during that time, depending on how many trials were going on. With Mecklenburg County courts, your summons is for one day or the length of one trial. The jury administrator for U.S. District Court tells me she's never had complaints from jurors about the lack of amenities - although many do show up expecting movies and popcorn. Investing in perks isn't high on the federal court's list of priorities, partly because it only calls about 1,500 jurors a year, compared to more than 50,000 for Mecklenburg County courts. And that might explain another key difference: Jury duty in federal court, earns you $40 a day, plus mileage from your house. Over at the Mecklenburg County Courthouse, a juror's daily pay is $12, plus all the popcorn you can eat.