One man close to me seemed nearly paralyzed with fear. The man to my left had turned a grayish color, almost matching his hair. He sported a sheen of sweat across his forehead. And me? My stomach was clenching.
We were sitting in a King County Superior Court courtroom as part of a jury pool last summer, and the judge had just informed us that the 29-count fraud case before him would likely take at least four days to be heard. He hoped that wouldn’t be a hardship on anyone. And, for our service? The county would compensate us each 10 bucks a day, plus bus fare or mileage.
Washington state’s minimum compensation rate for jurors was set in 1959, when Dwight Eisenhower was our president and Albert Rosellini was our governor. Though counties are free to pay more, most jurors in Washington are paid $10 a day, says the Washington State Center for Court Research.
“Oh, my God,” said the sweating guy next to me. “This will kill me.”
Turns out he was an independent financial planner, and taking even a couple of days to report for jury duty had forced him to reschedule meetings with two of his biggest clients. In case anyone had forgotten, the fellow told me, we were in a recession, and he didn’t have clients regularly dropping into his lap.
Ditto for another self-employed person: me. If selected for jury duty, I stood to lose hundreds of dollars—money I use for luxuries such as my mortgage and utility bills—and would have been scrambling to figure out child care for my elementary-school-age daughter.
The issue has vexed some of our state’s most respected jurists for years. The minuscule amount doled out to jurors, says state Supreme Court Justice Gerry Alexander, is disgraceful. Alexander, the state’s longest-serving state chief justice, has put considerable effort into increasing jury pay, only to be continually frustrated by the state Legislature.
“It becomes a tax on people public- spirited enough to answer the jury summons,” says Alexander, who notes that roughly one-third of those called for jury duty respond to the summonses. “If $10 was enough in 1959, hello! We’re talking 50 years later,” Alexander says. “It’s one of my great disappointments. I got a lot of things accomplished in my career, but this is one of the things I struck out on.”
But he’s not giving up, though he concedes our current economic straits make any chance of success unlikely. “It is an embarrassment to our state,” he sighs. Bruce Hilyer, presiding judge of the King County Superior Court, couldn’t agree more. “It’s really bad,” says Hilyer. “There’s not a superior court judge in the state who doesn’t agree it’s wrong and doesn’t want it changed.”
One problem is that jurors don’t have an advocacy group pushing their interests, Hilyer says. By their very nature, jury pools are ever changing, culled from voter and driver’s license records. Some folks may be called every couple of years. Others, like me, every 10 years. It’s no way to inspire a political action committee that could lobby for the interests of jurors.
Add to the mix the massive budget shortfalls currently faced by the state and counties, and the prospects for increasing juror pay by any amount anytime soon look grim. “The focus has changed to getting enough money in the door to keep courts open,” Hilyer says. But like any economic cycle, this one will change to better times, and Hilyer, Alexander and others concerned with the issue say it needs to stay before state legislators and the public if it’s ever to change when more money is available.
They worry not only about getting people to simply show up for jury duty, but about getting a broad cross section of the public to show up—a cross section that fairly reflects all social and economic levels of society. Frequently, those who can afford to serve are people who work for big companies that will continue to pay their employees’ regular salaries while they’re in the courtroom, or they’re government workers or retirees with a pension. That means jury makeup skews away from the self-employed, away from those working for small firms and away from lower-wage workers who won’t get paid if they’re not on the job. It’s no secret that many defendants tend to come from lower economic groups, while a large numbers of jurors work for big companies like Boeing and Microsoft. “We do worry about it,” Hilyer says.
In 2006, the Legislature funded a year-long pilot project to see if higher compensation— $60 a day—might lure more jurors to serve in Franklin and Clark counties and Des Moines Municipal Court. A study by the Center for Court Research concluded it showed mixed results, yielding more jurors in Clark County, about the same in Des Moines, but actually fewer folks in Franklin County. Court observers and the Center for Court Research said a number of things may have affected the project, including the fact that the public never really got word of the increased pay, the project wasn’t long enough, and that the pay was still low compared to a typical day’s wages. Two studies done outside Washington do show increased juror response rates following an increase in jury pay, say state court researchers.
Judges, of course, have the leeway to dismiss potential jurors if serving would pose an undue hardship, whether due to financial reasons, family circumstances—say, child or elder care—or work issues. What it means practically is that individual Superior Court judges must use seat-of-the-pants judgment on whether a juror is excused. “Every judge has to make his or her own decision about what constitutes a hardship,” Hilyer says. “Under the law, an employer can’t discipline you for performing jury service, but they don’t have to pay you, either. It’s a real difficult issue for us, and it’s one we confront every day.”
University of Washington School of Law professor Maureen Howard sees the issue from many angles. She has served as a county prosecutor, a county judge pro-tem and a civil litigator. She strongly reminds us that, like voting, serving on a jury is one of the cornerstones of our democracy, and it’s best to keep that concept front and center when parsing the issue. She fears that increasing compensation might encourage people, even subconsciously, to appear more “fair” during the selection process, although she concedes she didn’t know the current compensation level has been the same since 1959.
“We need people who are pure of heart, really committed volunteers to the justice system,” Howard says, “although we recognize the compensation is pitiful, [just] covering bus fare and lunch.”
Given the current economic times, raising compensation to even minimum wage would obviously harm the court system, she explains. “I don’t know the answer,” she says. “Clearly, in 1959, the pay was intended not just to cover your fast-food lunch, but was envisioned as some sort of compensation. I, personally—the taxpayer—would have no problem with taking the $10 and raising it. But…if we raised it to minimum wage [$8.67 per hour as of January 1, 2011], does it really solve anybody’s problem? And weighing the degree to which it would make a problem for the courts, it just might be that we recognize that it would be great to raise the pay, but we’re dying here.”
In my case, the judge excused me from serving, not for financial hardship but because I had paid for personal travel that likely would occur during the course of the trial. As it turns out, the judge in the case, King County Superior Court Judge Michael Fox, has been worried about the issue for nearly all of his 22 years on the bench. “I’ve long been concerned with trying to make jury duty as easy as possible, to minimize the inconvenience,” Fox says. “We know that we do inconvenience people.”
Still, I’m just hoping a jury summons doesn’t turn up in my mailbox for a long, long time. It’s not that I don’t want to serve, but I’d gladly turn that honor over to someone who can afford it.
What others pay
FEDERAL COURTS: $40/day
OREGON: $10/day first two days, $25/day thereafter
BRITISH COLUMBIA: $20/day first 10 days, $60/day days 11 to 49, $100/day day 50 onward
COLORADO: $50/day after third day (employer pays first three)
FLORIDA: $15/day first three days (if not paid by employer), $30/day thereafter
MASSACHUSETTS: $50/day after third day (employer pays first three)
NEW MEXICO: $5.15/hour
NEW YORK: $40/day
UTAH: $18.50/day first day, $45/day thereafter
WEST VIRGINIA: $40/day
SOURCES: National Center for State Courts; Government of Alberta; Government of British Columbia