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Brett Emison
Brett Emison
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Slate’s Impoverished View of Jury Duty

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12 Angry Men Image, Source: 7th Street Theater

12 Angry Men
Image Source: 7th Street Theater

“I consider [trial by jury] as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.”

– Thomas Jefferson

That is high praise for the American civil justice system and role of juries by the author of the Declaration of Independence.  Other founders held the role of juries in similar high regard.

“In suits at common law, trial by jury in civil cases is as essential to secure the liberty of the people as any one of the pre-existent rights of nature.”

– James Madison

“The civil jury is a valuable safeguard to liberty.

– Alexander Hamilton

“In suits between man and man, the ancient trial by jury is one of the greatest securities to the rights of the people.”

– Virginia Bill of Rights, 1788

“Representative government and trial by jury are the heart and lungs of liberty.  Without them we have no other fortification against being ridden like horses, fleeced like sheep, worked like cattle, and fed and clothed like swine and hounds.”

– John Adams

More recently, conservative Chief Justice William Rehnquist said, “The founders of our nation considered the right to trial by jury in civil cases an important bulwark against tyranny and corruption, a ‘safeguard too precious to be left to the whim of the sovereign.'”

And yet today, this fundamental civil liberty is under attack.  I’ve written recently about coordinated attacks against this fundamental right in Missouri (see here, here, here, and here).

Now, Matthew Yglesias at Slate has written a blog complaining about his – or his coworkers’ – civic duty to serve as a juror.

He starts:

I’ve served on jury duty in the past without complaint and, frankly, have traditionally felt that the American habit of constant whining about civic obligation is a bit unseemly.”

Yglesias then proceeds to whine about jury duty in an unseemly manner for the rest of his article.

What I gather from the post is that Yglesias believes the role of juror is one for the “little people” – those workers whose jobs “are basically interchangeable widgets.”

Forgive my language, but what an asshole [ok, asshole as harsh – still though, it’s an asshole-ish thing to say].

Matt, society is so sorry you were inconvenienced for what – a day?  A couple days?  A week?  In the US, we don’t have a draft.  We don’t have any form of long-term mandatory public service.  We have a varying degree of short term obligations for the betterment of society.  One of those is jury duty.  And it is vitally and fundamentally important.

Jurors safeguard liberty.  The 12 Angry Men in the image above determine life and death in a criminal matter.  A panel of 12 strangers hear evidence and decide if a quadriplegic will receive compensation in order to gain some basic independence again.  The jury hears evidence to determine if a driver caused the crash or did not cause the crash.

The jury determines if the government has violated its constitutional obligations regarding speech, arms, religion, due process.  Jurors safeguards all other fundamental liberties.

And according to Yglesias, that short term obligation is beneath him and his colleauges and should be left to “interchangeable widgets”.

Now, should jurors be compensated more fairly for this critical civic duty?  Absolutely.

Bruce Watson addressed the issue for Daily Finance in a piece called Jury Duty Economics: The High Cost of Justice.  While some employers pay employees for time away at jury duty, many do not.  For someone underemployed, self-employed, or working part-time, jury service takes a particularly striking toll.

As the trial continued into its second week, things got tougher:  One member, a therapist, started to feel the hardship of lost billings, while another grew heavy-eyed as her all-night hospital residence shift bumped up against her daytime responsibilities in the courtroom.  One found out that her employer was docking her pay, giving her only the $40 per day that the State of New York requires.

By the time we got to the jury room to decide the case, it seemed like most of us had an eye on the meter:  After a few hours of argument, one juror joked that we might need to talk for another day before rendering a verdict.  The room suddenly became very quiet as a soft voice replied, “For real, y’all, I can’t miss another day of work.”

– Bruce Watson at Daily Finance

Contributor “wellheeledblog” did some math on the site Blogher.  According to her example, a self-employed juror in California earning $30/hour would face a hit of $850 for a week long trial or $1,700 over a two-week trial.

Or, how about a stay-at-home mom who takes care of her two children.  To attend a 5-day trial, she would have to find alternate child care for at least 10 hours of the day (8 hours in the courthouse, 2 hours commute).  Unless she can find family members who can watch her children for free, she would need paid help.  Let’s say that hiring a babysitter to take care of two children would cost $15 per hour.  That means that the mom would have to pay $750 over the course of five days.

– wellheeledblog at Blogher

Datko provided some suggestions for improving the system, including:

  • Increase the pay – unlikely with the financial condition many governments find themselves in
  • Require all employers to pay workers called for jury duty at their normal rate for a limited number of days, minus juror pay (though small businesses are often exempted in states with such requirements)
  • Make jury pay tax-free and also allow deductions for juror expenses that are not reimbursed

Since we hold the right to jury trial in such high regard, we should also hold those actually enacting and enabling that right just as highly.

Should the system be improved to better compensate jurors?  Absolutely.  Should we abolish the jury system or leave service only to those “interchangeable widgets”?  Absolutely not.  Such whining is just unseemly.

© Copyright 2014 Brett A. Emison

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