Compulsory Jury Service At A Living Wage


I am picking a jury this week in a manslaughter case. It is heart-breaking. My client is charged with causing the death of two of her three small children in a head-on crash with another car. Blood-alcohol tests at the hospital, where my client had been resuscitated, yielded results consistent with intoxication. In fact, she wasn;t intoxicated, but the state isn't listening. I am hoping a jury will.

Connecticut jury selection is, I am told, unique. We question each juror outside of the presence of all other jurors. It is called individual sequestered voir dire. Picking three jurors in one day is considered alot. The norm is a juror or two. We are looking for six jurors and two alternates in this case.

Picking jurors is an exercise in something akin to anthropology. Folks stumble in from all walks of life: physicians sit next to unemployed truck drivers; single mothers and well-healed matrons sit anxiously wondering what will happen next. What norms do all these folks share? Does their world resemble the world of the client sitting silently at my side?

The court is free to excuse jurors for good cause. One such cause is economic hardship. If a person lives so close to the edge of economic survival that missing a couple of weeks of works will be distracting, that juror is excused. The state requires employers to pay for the first five days of jury service, but that is only for full-time employees. After the fifth day, jurors are paid a stipend of $50 per day. The result is that lower-middle class and poor people are often excused because of economic necessity. (Professionals also seem to be cut some informal slack if they articulate scheduling issues that could distract them.)

The result skews juries. Rather than a fair cross section of the community, juries often come to resemble comfortable enclaves of folks who share middle class norms and lifestyles. Vast segments of the community are excluded from service because they are not affluent enough to be able to take an economic hit for a few weeks.

A better system would be one which eliminated economic considerations for service. Rather than paying a flat fee, the courts should consider a replacement wage theory of compensation. Thus, a juror could present to the court his or her three most recent pay stubs. The court would then fix juror compensation at an average daily rate calculated from this sum. This does yield greater payment to some than others, and that is troubling. But it would assure that no one is kept from jury service because they cannot afford to serve. For those with no income, the court could offer market-basket compensation, giving jurors a sum sufficient to support them and their family for the day.

Times are tough, I know. I've read reports of courts in some states suspending jury trials briefly to save money. But times are rarely as tough for a juror as they are for a defendant facing years in prison. That defendant is entitled to a jury of his or her peers. When only the relatively well-heeled can afford to sit on a jury something is wrong. This silent property qualification needs to be eliminated.

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© Norm Pattis is represented by Elite Lawyer Management, managing agents for Exceptional American Lawyers
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