How counties can create more efficient courts and enhance the juror experience
Until recently, Collin County, Texas, had antiquated jury management technology, and the workload required to manage it was becoming overwhelming. Our fast-growing county needed a quicker, more efficient way for the jury staff of my office to satisfy the needs of the many courts we serve including 13 District Courts, seven County Courts, four Justice of the Peace Courts, and one Probate Court. With this load, the request for jurors started to exceed the maximum capacity of the county’s central jury room, leading us to consider a costly infrastructure expansion.
Because a physical expansion would require significant taxpayer funds, we had to come up with other ways to overcome our challenges. Fluctuations in jury size also created unique hurdles. As pandemic restrictions evolved, we remained proactive in providing access to justice by using virtual processes for hearings and trials. Our in-person jury plans required approval under the Texas Supreme Court Orders, which took us from one jury a day with a maximum of 80 people in the central jury room back to full capacity of 600 people as of September 1. We leaned on neighboring jurisdictions and sought out innovative technology that could address these pain points. As counties throughout the United States improve how they communicate with potential jurors and increase efficiencies, district clerks and other officials should consider the following:
Use your peer network
A great first step in addressing this kind of challenge is seeking out similar jurisdictions; they are likely facing similar issues. Aware that nearby Tarrant County faced and tackled similar challenges, my team went and viewed their jury management technology system at work. Tarrant County was successfully using its software to overcome jury room capacity issues by prequalifying jurors when possible and sending them directly to the appropriate county courtrooms. Both the technology and directing jury pools to county courts seemed applicable solutions for us, as well.
Consider new software to increase internal efficiencies
With ongoing virtual trials in place and in-person trials increasing, Collin County implemented new jury software that would be a more efficient system for judges, attorneys, and clerks. The new software quickly became pivotal in my team’s effort to fully facilitate jury service under challenging conditions. Most immediately, it eliminated the need for new capital expenditures to expand the physical space of the existing central jury room. As in Tarrant County, the system makes it easy for jury pools to be directed to the County Court at Laws instead of the central jury room, mitigating the need for more space.
The jury software improves the major tasks of our three jury clerks who support the courts. Clerks can work at the same time in the software without causing system failures and they are now able to communicate with residents called for jury duty through texts and emails, at no cost to the county.
These efficiencies allow us to continue the work for a county of nearly one million people without becoming overwhelmed. The system helps to determine if jurors are eligible for an exemption or if they need to reschedule. It also helps the clerks by quickly creating required reports such as juror payment or attendance while others are simultaneously using the system. Attendance, in particular, is made easier, as jurors are checked in via barcode scans that catch date or location errors immediately. The old headache of replacing jurors on jury lists is now solved in a few short keystrokes. Finally, the calendar system provides a centralized information hub for all day-to-day activities in the central jury room as well as individual calendars for county, district, and justice of the peace juror requests.
Use technology to provide a better juror experience
Modernizing and improving our county courts through technology also created a better juror experience for our residents. The new methods of communication ensure that everyone is on the same page regarding appointment times and locations. Virtual summonses as well as in-person summonses with QR codes point individuals directly to the most important information. Jurors can enter the online system as often as necessary to make changes, and functionality will soon be added to allow them to check-in for service using their driver’s license numbers.
Position your county for future growth
Implementing new technology not only helps meet your county’s current needs, but it can help set you up for success in the future. Now, we are more agile and can respond to changing legislation and orders without interrupting our normal workflow. In response to a State Supreme Court emergency order, for example, we added a link to a required COVID-19 questionnaire in the summons along with a QR code. In September, a new state law required a configuration change for jury pay to include a donation option. We were able to update the system to include this within hours of the county treasurer’s request.
These and the other noted improvements will help us handle the county’s growth with more efficiency and less taxpayer burden. As the county and courthouse both expand, it should require little physical change to the jury room and minimal growth in personnel, even while our service to citizens grows in quality.
It’s important to note this software implementation should not be done in a silo. Our broader technology strategy includes a case management system that integrates with the state system for Texas courts and renders in-person, paper filings almost obsolete. We are further working to integrate with the state’s eFile system to create a comprehensive research tool for attorneys and citizens. Online dispute resolution may also be on the horizon. This innovative solution promises to allow even more access to judicial systems for self-represented individuals from the privacy and convenience of their homes.
Collin County sought the best practices in following the mandates from the Texas Supreme Court while at the same time preserving its core mission of serving the public through the fair and impartial administration of justice. Our new jury management system has allowed us to continue to serve with distinction and can serve as an example for other county systems across the country with similar challenges and goals.
Lynne Finley is the district clerk for Collin County, Texas, the sixth largest county in Texas and one of the fastest growing counties in the United States. Finley holds a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in communications from Texas Tech University and a law degree from South Texas College of Law. Finley has practiced law for more than 26 years.