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Economy leaving jury boxes empty

Jury box at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles

TEXT OF STORY

Steve Chiotakis: It's not a piece of mail that's welcomed everywhere. The jury summons. It's a civic obligation, yes. But in this recession, jury duty can also be a financial burden. And that's making it harder to find jurors. Marketplace's Nancy Farghalli reports.


Nancy Farghalli: Richard Gabriel is the president of a national trial consulting firm in Los Angeles, so he's asked the same question every single day:

Richard Gabriel: How do I get out of jury service?

Sorry, he doesn't have an answer. But he says courts are having a tougher time with folks trying to get out of jury service. Blame the economic downturn. Jury service can affect those who are unemployed especially. It can mean less time to look for work. Last year in Los Angeles County, more than 25 percent of the jury pool were excused because of financial hardship. Gabriel says the recession has stressed court systems all over the country.

Gabriel: Judges have gotten more tougher on some jurors because they have heard so many excuses over the years.

But the real pressure is that states are hard pressed themselves. So they can't raise jury payments. California only pays $15 a day. Colorado has one of the highest fees -- at $50 a day.

Gail Ruderman Feuer is the site judge for the Metropolitan Courthouse in Los Angeles. She wishes states paid more. But, she says, judges have a strict policy on who can be dismissed for economic reasons.

Gail Ruderman Feuer: A true financial hardship would be someone who won't be able to pay their bills. They are going to be thrown out of their apartment or their house. The person that it is difficult for them because of they are not making money that person does need to serve.

Most major cities have to call more than 10,000 jurors a day in order to fill jury boxes. Still, Judge Feuer says that the public should remember this:

Feuer: If everyone who has some difficulty financially if they serve on jury service is excused, you are going to have a jury of either senior citizens or very rich people. That is not a cross section of our society.

Here in California, there are no plans to raise the jury payment from $15 a day. But there is another solution that some local court systems are trying: sending out even more jury summons.

In Los Angeles, I'm Nancy Farghalli for Marketplace.

About the author

Nancy Farghalli is an editor at Marketplace.
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I served as a juror in a social security fraud case in federal court in Chicago and had to travel by train and walk quite a distance to participate. After this case, I was on call the rest of the month. It was a stressful time and do not relish the thought of serving again.

During any given trial, the judge is there earning a six-figure income, the prosecutors are earning their incomes and the defense attorneys are taking in $150 an hour. So ... the jurors are doing their "civic duty"? This needs to change. A good starting point for what courts pay jurors would be $150 a day. Perhaps the jurors time would be valued better and trials shorter.

As a self-employed consultant, I am usually scheduled months in advance. My work with nonprofit boards means that volunteer trustees also take time from their schedule to participate in our retreats and planning sessions. It's very hard to reschedule a meeting when one is canceled. The solution is not a bad one, we receive jury summons at my house every year for all 4 adults in our house. We simply call, explain we are unavailable, and ask to schedule a date when we are in town and available. They offer us other dates, and the adjustment is made. It took awhile for us to figure this out, but it works.

What about senior citizens?

The jury system originated when jurors were farmers or artisans. It's a lot different now with people working in hourly jobs, independent contractors or those seeking work. God forbid you get on a grand jury that goes on forever.

Senior citizens are supposed to be some of our wisest heads. A modest proposal: draw more senior citizens for jury duty, making service a condition (barring disability) of receiving social security.

One solution is to treat jurors with respect, as though their time has value. Much of a juror's time is spent waiting to be called for a case, or sitting through voir dire for hours when their own role in voir dire may require only minutes. This is an abuse of the juror's time. Jurors may sit around for days and never be called (I have had this experience, and it made me not want to serve again). Or they may be asked to serve on a trial that goes on and on and on and on without regard for the fact that they have lives to live outside of the trial. The system is created for the convenience of the court and attorneys. I think the problem lies with the courts and the way they think of jurors, not with the jurors themselves. In the one criminal trial on which I served, the jurors took their role very seriously and I was very impressed by their commitment to justice. I believe this is, in part, because the jurors were treated with respect by the trial judge from beginning to end. If jurors are in short supply, the solution is to treat them better so that they are willing to serve (if their life circumstances permit) not to call them more often.

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