EDITORIAL: A few smart tweaks would fix juror shortages in California

Like voting or serving in public office, jury service is a duty and privilege of citizenship. Gov. Jerry Brown was right to veto Assembly Bill 1401, which would have allowed noncitizens to serve on juries.

Yet the problem the bill sought to address -- a shortage of jurors -- remains vexing and expensive for the courts. Remedies are available. The Legislature could consider granting the courts authority to reduce the size of juries and the number of peremptory challenges that can be applied to prospective jurors. Some 39 states have reduced jury sizes, according to a report this year by the Presiding Judges Advisory Committee Jury Working Group.

That report made several recommendations: For all felonies, there would be no change to the traditional 12-member jury. However, the number of peremptory challenges in which lawyers are not required to state a reason would be reduced from 20 per side to 12 for cases involving life sentences and from 10 to six per side for all other felonies. For death penalty cases, the 20 peremptory challenges allowed per side under current law would not be changed.

For misdemeanors where conviction carries the potential for penalties of six months or more, jury size would be cut from 12 to eight and the number of peremptory challenges reduced from 10 to six per side.

All other misdemeanors would be adjudicated in court trials with a judge presiding and no jury at all.

In civil cases, the number of jurors would be reduced from 12 to eight.

It's estimated that the changes proposed would save beleaguered California courts $5.1 million annually in direct costs. Community costs, which include the loss of productivity, wages and business activity, would be reduced by approximately $174 million annually.

Despite the savings, and despite the recommendations of judges most knowledgeable about the problem, the forces supporting the status quo have prevailed. A modest bill introduced on the subject this year -- to reduce the number of peremptory challenges allowed in misdemeanor cases -- failed to even get a hearing.

Gamesmanship in jury selection wastes everyone's time and money. The reforms recommended deserve consideration.