CHIPPEWA FALLS — Chippewa County Judge Steve Cray has a warning for potential jurors who don’t show up in court or refuse to fill out and return paperwork: You may receive a hefty fine.

Cray said government doesn’t really ask that much of its citizens but one important request is to participate as a juror.

“It’s just so darn important. If you are a defendant, you want people just like you on a jury,” Cray said. “If they don’t show up, it compromises the justice system. I treat it very seriously.”

Cray has nine people scheduled to appear before him in court today who failed to complete paperwork or skipped coming to court on the day a trial began. He said he handles these types of cases three or four times annually and typically will have 10 to 15 at a time.

“If I feel they are in contempt, I can fine them up to $500,” Cray said. “Quite often, the maximum penalty is imposed. The forfeiture is for contempt.”

Potential juror lists are generated from state Department of Transportation records. 

Karen Hepfler, Chippewa County clerk of court, said her office does mass mailings each year to people who have been selected for potential jury duty, sending a questionnaire with basic questions verifying they are at least 18 years old, aren’t a felon and live in the county. Before jury selection, another questionnaire will be sent, with more specific questions, such as current employment and spousal information.

Questionnaires are mailed out to an address up to three times. If a person still hasn’t filled out and returned the paperwork after the third mailing, they will be summoned to court on an order to show cause, Hepfler explained.

“Annually, we see a number of about 100 (who don’t fill them out),” Hepfler said. “Not all of them end in an order to show cause.”

Eau Claire County Judge Jon Theisen said the actual number of people who refuse to fill out the paperwork or show up when required is quite low.

“In Eau Claire, we do not find this to be a problem,” Theisen said. “Our constituents value the role and respect the opportunity to be jurors. The clerk of courts does a good job of allowing people to trade and switch their weeks.”

Theisen said that participation numbers are at least 90 percent; if he called in 120 potential jurors, perhaps four or five won’t show up.

While Theisen said he hasn’t issued any citations, he doesn’t let those people off the hook either.

“I request follow-up,” Theisen said. “I’ll say I want them reassigned to another week. But if they truly don’t want to be there, they probably won’t be good jurors.”

Eau Claire County Clerk of Court Susan Schaffer was preparing for a trial Wednesday and couldn’t be reached for comment.

Chippewa County Judge Steve Gibbs, who was in private practice for 20 years and four years as district attorney before his appointment as judge last year, agreed participation levels are quite high.

“I think our citizens take their constitutional duty very seriously,” Gibbs said. “We’re in the 90 percent range of those who show up. It’s been pretty consistent over the years.”

The possibility of a longer case doesn’t seem to lead to more unexcused absences, Gibbs added. He said he had a scheduled three-week-long civil trial and all 75 potential jurors showed up.

Gibbs recalled that retired Eau Claire County Judge Thomas Barland would hand out fines and would occasionally order a person to a weekend in jail for failure to participate.

“He took it very seriously — he sent messages to witnesses and jurors that it was important to show up in court,” Gibbs said.

Barland, who served on the bench from 1967 until 2000, said Wednesday he recalled sentencing people to jail once or twice but only when the person showed “utter contempt of court.”

Barland agreed with Cray that jury duty is a critical duty of Americans.

“That goes back to Revolutionary times. It’s part of the democratic process,” Barland said. “The jury lies at the very heart of the judicial system.”

Barland said he was always willing to accommodate people who had prior plans but he didn’t like when people simply didn’t show up.

“Those who ignore it, they are called to court to account for their behavior,” Barland said. “I’d explain to them their civic duties.”

La Crosse County Judge Todd Bjerke handed out fines ranging from $100 to $200 on Tuesday to eight potential jurors who skipped out on a murder case. Officials there said it was the first time La Crosse County has ever issued citations.

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