Escobar questions consistency of jury-contempt hearings

Escobar questions consistency of jury-contempt hearings

El Paso County's jury duty court will begin holding hearings again after a month-long hiatus, the Council of Judges decided Thursday.

"The most important thing that we really want is to assure citizens under the constitution are guaranteed a trial by their peers," said Council of Judges Administrator Patrick Garcia of the 384th District Court. "And a trial by their peers includes a cross-section of the community, from every walk of life in our community, and not from just specific professions, or people who show up."   

But County Judge Veronica Escobar questions whether defendants are being punished consistently, as individual district court judges have been allowed to hold their own jury-contempt hearings all along.

"If the purpose of the jury court is to create consistency, so that every juror who gets called to jury duty at the County of El Paso goes through the same process, the same kind of hearing, etc.," Escobar said. "If you have members of the judiciary who are conducting their own jury contempt hearings, what does that do?"

However, 41st District Court Judge Anna Perez told ABC-7 that consistency isn't the issue, because the eight percent of people who didn't show up for jury selection last year had a wide range of excuses.

Perez said she will hold her own hearings, because she questions the legitimacy of the jury duty court. The $300,000 profit center for the county last year may have to reimburse hundreds of thousands in over-charged court costs.

The county already has to pay about one-third of total court costs to the state. The bigger problem is the separate jury fine -- of which the county appears to have undercharged millions last year. One-hundred percent of that money would have stayed within the county -- and now it can't be recouped.

In the past month, jury duty court has been assessing no court costs, which have been nearly $300 in the past. It's been assessing only those jury fines, which state government code requires stay between $100 and $1,000.

But Mike Izquierdo, the executive director of the Council of Judges, told ABC-7 that the district court judges have been able to assess both fines and court costs.

"Have every individual judge do their own jury hearings, their own contempt hearings," Escobar said. "They said they would debate it, that they would take it under consideration, and so my hope is that they will. Because if the purpose is that consistency, if you don't have 100 percent participation, clearly you don't have the consistency."

One district court judge who didn't want to be identified as questioning the Council of Judges told ABC-7 on Friday that he or she would not assess court costs -- and would keep the fine close to $100. That judge hadn't heard of any other judges assessing court costs while jury duty court was offline.

Jury duty court will hold hearings until the end of September but still not charge court costs, while the county seeks an attorney general opinion on whether it was improperly assessing them.

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