Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Just Compensation for Jurors

Copyright, The New York Times Company

“Jury service is a serious, meaningful and important responsibility,” says Cook County Court in Illinois and many other courts in the United States. Yet the courts pay jurors far less than minimum wage. In Cook County, jurors are paid $17.20 a day; working eight hours at the state’s minimum wage would pay almost quadruple that.

Employers are sometimes forced by state law to pay jurors while they serve the court, but that is no help for the self-employed, students and people without jobs.

Jurors are selected randomly from state-compiled lists of residents and forced to participate unless excused by the court for specific circumstances, such as a medical condition that prevents service. People who do not report for duty can be punished at to the court’s discretion, including jail time.

With random selection, low pay, medical excuses and the potential for severe punishment, a jury summons has a lot in common with a Vietnam-era draft notice, although, of course, the skill and activities associated with the service itself is far different for jurors than for Vietnam soldiers.

Many people summoned for jury duty search desperately for excuses. Their efforts increase the burden on the court system, which has to summon and process a large number of people in order to empanel its juries.

The court system might alleviate these problems by following the example of the modern military: recruit people for service by paying them far more than minimum wage. Jurors could still be selected randomly, but with a nice paycheck waiting for them, they would not try as hard (or at all) to be excused by the court.

Critics of a market-oriented recruitment system might say the pool of jurors would not fully represent the population because, among other things, people getting high pay in their normal jobs would be less willing to serve on a jury because of the loss of pay. But let’s not pretend that the conscripted jurors we have today are a random sample of the population.

If jurors were paid at a generous hourly rate, might they deliberate longer? And would that be a good thing or not? If it were desirable to shorten juror deliberation time, jurors could be paid a flat rate for that part of their service.

The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the taking of private property “for public use, without just compensation.” Did the founding fathers really think that it was much worse to take property without just compensation than to take a citizen’s time?

Taking property and drafting citizens into government service without market compensation have many of the same economic problems: they fail to spread the burden of supporting government activity, they encourage socially wasteful avoidance behaviors, and enforcement runs the risk of special treatment for the politically connected.

The modern military pays soldiers with both appreciation and money. Jurors should be paid that way, too.


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