Jury duty, for lack of a better word and unfortunately to use the colloquialism, sucks. Admit it, you dread receiving the jury summons and when you call the automated system each night you feel a pit in your stomach that your group will be selected to appear.
Make no mistake about it: everyone understands and appreciates the value of the jury system, but nobody likes it. The court officers who administer the system hate it because they have to give the same speech every day and answer the same questions every day; the judges dislike it because a jury trial takes longer than a bench trial, which means that the judge will not be able to clear as many cases off his/her docket; the attorneys, on the whole, dislike it because it means more work and more time in court, thus more expense to the client but less time billing on other matters; and the parties typically dislike it because they are forced to put their faith and trust in the hands of 12 men and women they have never met. Finally, and more importantly, the general public dislikes it because they feel that their time is better spent doing other things. Attorneys are notorious in this respect because what other profession is there where the value of the individual is measured by the amount of time they work? Every hour on jury duty is an hour not billing.
But barring all of that, it is bar-none a system that comes as close to seeing that justice is done as there is in the world. And it must be saved and I think I know how.
I served my time as a juror last week and was morally challenged throughout the process. As soon as I was seated in the jury box I had to identify myself as an attorney and the gauntlet was laid. Do I fake an answer in order to try to create a reason to be excused? Do I tell the court that the defendant must be guilty of something because he is here? Or that I think the police never make mistakes and always get the right person? These thoughts ran through my mind as I was being voir dired and it was difficult for me to come up with a reason why I could not serve. Sure, I had a full plate of work at my office. But the judge asked me a very astute question, and one which made me reconsider my concern with ensuring dismissal. He asked me if I had ever tried a jury trial before. Of course I had, and during that trial I remember how integral and important the jury was. Like it or not, if a party wants a jury trial, they get it. The jury serves such an important part of the process that it cannot be taken lightly. But still, people are scrambling to find reasons to be excused. Don’t you remember the quip? I don’t want a jury trial because I do not want to be judged by 12 people too stupid to get out of jury duty?
Well, the system has been changed so that the ease of ensuring excusal from jury duty has been eradicated. No longer will financial hardship or inability to speak English like a professor or family obligations be a reason for summary dismissal. The courts don’t want to hear it. Want to know what I heard? The defense attorney asked the jurors if any of them did not want to serve as jurors. After murmurs and mumbles, many of the jurors conceded that they did not want to be there. The overarching reason? Financial hardship. My boss doesn’t pay for jury service and if I do not work, I do not get paid. This is not uncommon and certainly understandable given the current economic status. But why not use this to advantage?
I have an idea. I am not saying it is a great one, but it might be on the right track. Perhaps the legislators can work out the details; but I think it might just solve a lot of the issues and get potential jurors to be less averse to serving. Are you ready? Here goes: give employers a reason to pay their employees for jury service. If the employers demonstrate to their employees that jury service is important, less potential jurors will be looking for ways to avoid it.
Why should employers pay for jury service? Easy– what is the one thing that everyone hates? Paying taxes. Give the employers tax incentives for paying for jury service. The government creates these tax incentives all the time, whether it be for operating a business in specified geographic zones or for hiring specific classes of individuals. What difference should another tax incentive make? Want to sweeten the pot even more? Tell the jurors that the pay they receive from their employers for jury service will be tax-free. Come on, how bad could that be?
I know it doesn’t resolve all of the issues, and again, it probably needs some more thought. But what if you exempt students from serving? There is no possible way to incentivize them to voluntarily participate. If you can demonstrate that you are a student taking more than 12 hours of educational hours per week then you should be excused, hands down. And teachers should be permitted to postpone their jury service to times of the year when school is on hiatus. Now, the one hiccup, which I am still working on, is the self-employed, although I do think that tax incentives can be utilized.
I am not saying that it will resolve all of the issues, but people want to do the right thing, but they won’t if it works a detriment to them. Take away the financial hardship excuse. California is heavily employee-friendly so legislation that incentivizes payment to employees for jury service should fit in nicely. Or even legislating that payment to employees for jury service is mandatory. Fix the system. My stomach drops at the thought that some verdicts were decided in error because the jurors just wanted to finish their service and did not really want to be there. OJ? Possibly?
I don’t typically invite reader feedback, but in this respect I am curious as to whether any of you have any thoughts. So please, feel free to write me back or post a comments. Sharing of ideas can be helpful…
Have a great week, all of you.