Monday, February 6, 2012

Just Call Me A Jury Duty Revisionist

As you might have guessed from my title, I had jury duty recently. In some ways I may be lucky in that I'll be fifty-three next month and this was my first time to serve. A lot of people my age have had it two or three times by now. Actually, I feel not a little special that my state considers me mentally, ethically, and morally fit for the job. More likely there's a glitch in their selection process. Speaking of which, I'd like to suggest a couple of changes to this procedure.

For many of us, if not most, jury duty is a pain we could do without. It takes you away from work, and that doesn't make your employer at all happy because he still has to pay you half your wages even though you've done nothing for him. This only continues for a month or so however. After this he no longer has to pay you anything, so if you're on a trial that lasts for two or three months, you're on your own financially after the first month. My state also gives you the whopping sum of five dollars per day plus gas mileage for serving. I imagine the amount varies from state to state, but I doubt that any of them pay anything close to a living wage for serving jury duty. You can generally expect five or ten bucks tops. Basically they're paying for daily coffee and donuts along with the trip to the courthouse and back.

If you're self-employed like yours truly, you have no income from an employer while serving. Actually I'm overstating the case to some degree. A lot of your time is spent in the jury break room while waiting for a trial to come up. If there's no trial on any particular day, or if you're not selected to be on one of the trials, you get to leave by ten or eleven o'clock. This means you might be able to work a lot of afternoons, and of course there's the weekend too. I never actually had to be a juror at any trials, but I don't think the trials generally last for more than a couple of hours most days, so you probably still have time to get some work in during the afternoons.

“Wait,” you say; “you didn't serve on any trials?” As you've undoubtedly heard, not everyone gets picked to be on a jury. For instance, you may have something in your background that one of the lawyers thinks may bias your opinion unfavorably toward his client, so he may elect to dismiss you during jury selection. This could in fact happen every time you come up for jury selection, in which case you could spend your entire term of jury duty sitting in the break room every day. You may think this is a waste of the tax payer's money. It gets worse.

The week I was chosen to serve, there were only three jury trials scheduled for that entire week. As often happens though, two of the defendants decided to plead out on their way to the courthouse. Apparently most criminals are too chicken to go through a trial and risk serving longer sentences if convicted, but it's not until the last minute that they realize their spines are made of pudding. So now the hundred or so people chosen for jury duty during my term only had one case between us for the whole week. By Wednesday night, most of us were told not to come back, and our time of service was complete. At least three days were wasted. What bothers me though is not serving jury duty, but the fact that there are many people who would gladly serve it in my place, especially if we paid them more.

I was talking to the guy next to me while waiting for a trial, and he mentioned that his neighbor, a retired man, said that he wished he could serve instead of him just so he could have something to do. Apparently retirement isn't all that much fun for some people. I wonder how many of the old guys I see sitting around shooting the bull at McDonalds and Hardees in the mornings would be just as happy to do it in a jury break room? Or how about disabled people? A man without arms, for instance, might find working difficult, but not having arms never stopped anyone from being a juror. There are many disabled people who get around well enough to sit on a jury and who would gladly do it just to get out of the house and have something to do with their time. And what if we paid these people a little more to serve? Most are on a fixed income. What if we paid them even ten dollars per day instead of five? Twenty would be much better though. And let's go a step further and say that they're exempt from paying taxes on money from jury duty and that it has no effect on the amount of social security they draw. Most of the time they'd only be at the courthouse for two or three hours in the morning anyway, so twenty dollars per day for sitting around a few hours in the morning (something they'd be doing at home or McDonalds anyway) isn't all that bad really. A hundred dollars per week would look awfully good to a retired person living on nothing but social security. I think retirees and the disabled would clamor for the opportunity to serve jury duty day in and day out under these conditions. Why can't we make jury duty voluntary? And why can't you serve as often as you want providing there's a demand for you to do so? We could still make jury duty compulsory for some people if there weren't enough volunteers to do the job, but it would surely take most of us working people out of the system.

But where do we come up with the money to pay these people you ask? Well let's do some math. In my county we currently pay five dollars per day and there are roughly a hundred people called during any given week to serve. That's five hundred dollars per week and $25,000 per annum. If we upped the pay to twenty dollars per day that would still only be $100,000 per annum. So we would only need an extra $75,000 per year, and mine is a large county with a lot of crime. Most counties would need less people serving jury duty than mine. $75,000 is not much money at all for most counties to come up with. We'll spend more money than that paving a single street. But I can think of another way to pay these jurors.

Even though my county is large, from what I understand, having three jury trials in a single week is a typical work week for the judges here. Obviously most trials don't involve a jury, so it's not like the judges don't have other trials to get through. However, judges are usually done with trials by noon most days, and some days they have no trials at all. Of course there's some time spent reading through various court documents before a trial begins, but that doesn't take terribly long. We're paying them a very substantial yearly salary to do absolutely nothing a good deal of the time. Most judges I know spend more time on the golf links than in a courthouse. How about we start paying judges by the hour? Or would it be too much to ask our county employees to actually work for a living?

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