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Brett Emison
Brett Emison
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Zimmerman Jury: Competing Questions of High Cost and Financial Hardship of Jury Duty

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Image Attribution: NBC News

Image Attribution: NBC News

Extravagant?  That’s not a typical adjective when describing jury duty.  But you wouldn’t know it reading the headlines about the jury sequestered for 3 weeks hearing the trail in which George Zimmerman was acquitted in the death of Treyvon Martin.  Headlines scream of steak dinners, pedicures, and Ripley’s Believe It or Not!

For many jurors, the civic honor of jury duty is a substantial financial hardship – not a windfall.

In Missouri – my home state – the statutory rate of pay for jurors is $6 per day.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Missouri counties have the option of paying their local jurors more and some do.  For example, the 11th Judicial Circuit in St. Charles County (near St. Louis) pays jurors $20 per day.  Many courts – for example, the 16th Judicial Circuit in Jackson County (Kansas City, Missouri) pays only the statutory minimum, plus the handsome sum of $0.07 per mile traveled.  The highest rate of pay for any Missouri juror is $25.

The right to trial by a jury of one’s peers has become a cornerstone of the individual freedoms guaranteed by the United States Constitution’s Bill of Rights.  The Missouri State Constitution also guarantees the right to trial by jury.

16th Judicial Circuit for Jackson County, Missouri

I agree.  The 7th Amendment right to jury trial is the civil liberty that protects all other liberties.  But if so, why pay jurors so little to uphold that right?

Image Attribution: Outback Steakhouse

Image Attribution: Outback Steakhouse

The Zimmerman jurors, though sequestered, weren’t prisoners.  They were ordinary folks pulled out of their lives to do their civic duty.  Why is the media so quick to demonize them for what appear to be (relatively) reasonable activities?  Listen, I enjoy a Bloomin’ Onion as much as the next guy (and it’s “hand-carved by a dedicated bloomologist”), but I would hardly consider it to be extravagant.

Likewise, it seems a weekend bowling night or trip to the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum is hardly out of line.  The group trip to see The Lone Ranger may have been viewed as a punishment more than a reward given the film’s 27% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  These jurors were largely separated from friends, family, and normal entertainment sources for more than 3 weeks.  Overall, the activities seem to fall in the realm of “reasonableness” given the substantial time away from family and work for these jurors.

It may be “fun” to poke at the Zimmerman jurors or pretend that their service was some kind of windfall.  But it wasn’t.  And, for the vast majority of jurors across the country, jury service is much more likely to cause financial hardship – if not outright harm – than benefit.

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

John Adams said:

“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.”

Thomas Jefferson said:

“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.”

If we hold the right to trial in such high regard, should we not also hold those actually enacting and enabling that right just as high?

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