Q & A: Clyde Carson

He grew up on a dairy farm in Olive Branch and never expected to land in downtown Memphis. But in 1980, Clyde Carson started as a Circuit Court "runner," moved up through the ranks, and since 2002 has been Shelby County Jury Coordinator (formerly called commissioner). As such, he oversees the business of providing jurors for 24 courts, drawing from 700,000 candidates registered in the licensed-driver database. Carson talks to some 400 people each week, explaining the jury qualification process, answering questions, and — when the time is right — joking with citizens called to do their duty. >>>

When addressing these groups, what's your style?

I want to convey that people's lives are in their hands. So I'm serious and rules-oriented, but I also like to make people relax. They come in and they're scared to death. I use humor. Invariably once every few weeks, somebody will respond [to a comment] with "Amen." I'll lift the lid on my podium and say, "Be careful not to act like you're in church. I've got offering plates in here and I'll pass them out."

How often do you conduct the "mass qualifications" that involve more candidates?

Four times this year, 500 people each. [But] I will soon present a demo to the judges showing how the process could be done online. That would mean jurors would spend about five minutes on a computer as opposed to three hours here. The judges will have to approve it. We would still have sessions for those who want exemptions from serving or who don't have or like computers.

Who is automatically exempt from serving?

People under age 18 and full-time students. Others can apply for exemptions. Then we have those who are automatically disqualified — noncitizens, felons, nonresidents.

Dress code in court?

No political or vulgar logos. Nothing sleeveless, unless you've got a jacket to wear over it. People ask why. I call it the 40-year rule, or "we've always done it that way." Also no shorts or even capri pants. But there's no rule about miniskirts — though people rarely wear them.

Have you served on a jury?

No. That question always comes up. (Pauses to check computer.) There I am in the pool. Some have been called multiple times and I understand their frustration. So I'll ask the group, "How many here are 50 or older and have never been called?" And 20 will raise their hands. I ask that question for two reasons: We want to be sure we're getting 85 or 90 percent first-timers, and we want those who have served before to see that a lot of first-timers are being called.

Does your voice ever give out?

Once I got a cold and lost my voice and my doctor said, if you don't quit talking you're not gonna get it back. Now the word Clyde means to be heard from afar (smiles), and for me not to talk is hard to do. But I did what he said.

Most bizarre excuse you've heard for not serving?

This lady says, "My brother's in a nursing home and they give him medications on Thursday and Friday. Those meds hit me on Monday and knock me out." The judge asks, "You don't actually take them?" She says, "No, but I feel his pain."

Best question?

One morning after hearing people repeatedly ask, "Where's the front office, what's the phone number," a young man raises his hand and says, "How long did it take you to assemble this many brilliant people in the same room?" Needless to say, not another question was asked.

You seem to like your job.

I absolutely love it. When it came open, I thought I'd be crazy to apply for it. Now I know I'd have been crazy not to. I look back to when I was 18 years old and first started working in the courts, and seeing all those judges in their robes. It was the most awesome thing. I had and still have utmost respect for the system.

When you're not "being heard from afar" what are you up to?

I love horseback riding, hunting, fishing, the outdoors, period It slows down a little in the summer here and that's when my family — beautiful wife, two daughters, one son — and I like to go to Spring River and just live for about 10 days.

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