The legal system has sometimes been seen as a slow-moving machine. But slow took on a whole new meaning in Cowlitz County, Wash., this fall.
Last month, county officials confirmed that as many as 3,000 residents over the age of 80 were erroneously removed from the local jury pool, evidently by a court worker with good intentions gone awry. As a result, some court proceedings were put on hold.
The trouble started this summer when Sue Anderson, the jury management clerk, started removing the names of residents with birthdates before 1930 from the jury pool. Her actions went unnoticed until September when another county worker learned what was going on and alerted superiors.
County officials immediately began restoring the list to include all eligible residents regardless of age, but not before at least some damage was done. The county judges decided to halt all jury trials until the jury pool was returned to normal unless defendants agreed to sign a waiver.
Meanwhile, it's unclear what will happen to cases that were heard before the jury trouble was discovered, some of which could be appealed since the juries were not selected from among all those eligible to serve.
Anderson, who declined comment when contacted, had good intentions, her colleagues say. When asked why she purged the older residents, Ron Marshall, chief civil deputy prosecuting attorney for the county, says he believes Anderson was trying to save money. Oftentimes, older residents never end up sitting on a jury because of an ailment or other hardship, so by purging these individuals from the jury pool, Anderson probably reasoned that the county would save time, money and paperwork, Marshall says.
However, "the law doesn't give [Anderson] or anyone else the authority to remove someone just because of age," Marshall says. "There aren't a lot of 80-year-old defendants, but they are part of the community and we don't start excluding them just because they got too old."
These days, Cowlitz County's legal system is getting back to normal, with all eligible jurors returned to the pool, Marshall says, but the holdup will be felt for some time as court workers try to insert delayed trials into an already packed schedule.
Michelle Diament is a frequent contributor to the AARP Bulletin.