Respecting Time

Dunavant Award honoree strives for efficient jury process

By Bill Dries

Shelby County Jury Commission director Clyde “Kit” Carson and his wife attend a luncheon at the University of Memphis Holiday Inn, where Carson received a Dunavant Award earlier this week.  

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

For Clyde “Kit” Carson, the road to becoming Shelby County Jury commissioner began when he was 16 years old and looking for as much time driving a car as possible.

Then-Circuit Court Clerk Clint Crabtree, who attended the same church as Carson, hired him to work in his campaign. When Carson turned 18, Crabtree hired him to work in the office. He began as a runner retrieving files from the basement of the Shelby County Courthouse.

He remembers Crabtree saying many employees worked for the county for 25 or 30 years, until they retired.

“At 18, I thought there’s no way,” Carson recalled 33 years later. “I didn’t know what 25 or 30 years was. I had no idea what he was talking about.”

Carson was awarded the Bobby Dunavant Public Service Award Wednesday, Feb. 27, by the Rotary Club of Memphis East and the family of the late Probate Court clerk. Memphis City Council member Jim Strickland also was recognized.

The 10-year-old awards go each year to one elected official and one non-elected public official who best exemplifies the qualities Dunavant exhibited in his county government career as both a non-elected and an elected official.

University of Memphis President Dr. Shirley Raines also announced Wednesday the university and The Daily News will sponsor a March 27 symposium on good government at the university. Attorney Mike Cody, a former U.S. attorney and Tennessee attorney general, will moderate the event. Cody is also a former Memphis City Council member.

Carson’s work at the courthouse put him in contact with several jury commissioners, including assistant commissioner Estra Arnold. When she retired in 1992, she said he should apply for the job.

“I said, ‘I wouldn’t want your job,’” Carson recalled. “She said, ‘I need a resume by 3 o’clock.’ I was scared to tell her no.”

Carson said his job involves some citizens called for jury duty in state civil and criminal courts who are looking to get out of it. But he is quick to add that it is probably not as many as most people think.

“About 1 or 2 percent of the people I talk to are trying to get out. The rest of them that I talk to … they don’t mind coming to jury duty,” he said. “It’s not really what they want to do. But they understand the importance of it. They don’t mind coming. They just want to make sure life’s going to still be going on when they get through with it.”

He regularly gets calls from jurors picked to serve on juries who call after their term to say the experience was valuable.

Carson also works with the judges on how many prospective jurors they request for a jury pool to “respect their time.”

Every Monday morning, Carson greets a new group of 350 qualified, prospective jurors who are eligible for jury service for a week. When he became jury commissioner, it was 450 serving for two-week intervals.

Carson has worked with the judges to “order efficiently” when they call for a pool of jurors to hear a trial.

“If they have 20 challenges in a case there’s no need to order 60 jurors. … You’re not going to have that many challenged for cause,” he said of the jury math. “Be aware of how many people are seated in the back of the courtroom when we get the jury selected that we never spoke to. Let’s try to reduce the number we order. It’s been something the judges have endorsed.”

Working with judges, new cases are now set for trial on Monday.

“That doesn’t mean they don’t start cases on Tuesday or Wednesday,” Carson was quick to add. “But at least they have everything set on Monday and they kind of know what’s coming.”

A call system like the one used for federal district court jury duty is an option Carson hears a lot about. But he qualifies prospective jurors for many more courtrooms, which would require having twice as many citizens at a time tapped for the duty if he had a call system.

Carson is also focused on the experience for jurors who may be unfamiliar with how the courts work and worried about their jobs and other obligations not to mention the complexities of parking around the Criminal Justice Center and courthouse.

“When I first say good morning, they are as nervous as they can be and scared. By the end of the week, they’ve really brightened up,” Carson said. “I don’t watch the news. I see enough of it every day to not have to watch it. But I get to work with the good people of Shelby County.”