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Please Look at the Jury System

The draft notice comes in the mail, not unlike the one from the 60s: "Jury Summons: You have been radomly selected to serve as a juror in King Country Superior Court. By order of the Court you are summoned to appear at King County Superior Court at....."

Several hundred persons, mostly middle class and white, show up on a Monday morning at 8 a.m. They are given a pep talk on an American's right to trial by a jury of his peers, then a film. Then they are advised that as jurors they will be paid ten dollars a day ("the same as in the Eisenhower Administration"), and immediately thereafter they are asked if they would like to donate that daily ten dollars to a fund to provide day care for the children of defendants on trial. In the moment, many prospective jurors, including yours truly, sign the form to make this donation.

Seven or so years ago, when I last was summoned to jury duty, the same request was made to provide funds to support day care for defendants. Sitting there in the jury room on a recent morning, I wondered, why has the Legistlature after all this time not provided for such purposes and why is there no fund to support day care for the children of impoverished jurors--the folks paid the measly $10 a day? Why are jurors, when they are feeling vulnerable, hit up for this purpose--hit up to help defendants just as they are being assembled for particular cases that happen to involve, after all, defendants?

Make no mistake, citizens called for jury duty do feel vulnerable. The government probably could have obtained donations from draft inductees for the miltitary back in the 50s and 60s; all the government had to do was pass the forms out at the time of induction. Many of those summoned for jury duty already have sought to be excused. They are out of town, for example, or they are the sole care givers for their parents. Many others are excused in criminal cases because they work or have worked in law enforcement, or have a relative or close friend in law enforcement; or they are a lawyer or court employee, or were one, or have one in the family or as a close friend in law enforcement, or in some other way have an idea of what is going on. Some unknown number of citizens who are summoned to jury service simply ignore the call, and that seems to be the end of that. I don't ever recall hearing about someone prosecuted for failing to show up for jury duty.

In the "Voir Dir" (jury selection proces) in which I was involved for two days on a case about identity theft, some 80 juror candidates were examined before about thirty were found who were both willing and able to serve. Then attorneys for the state and the defense were given the right to excuse "for cause" or simply as a preemptory removal. (I was selected out in the last category by the defense attorney, perhaps because I was the only man in the room wearing a tie.) In the end, 12 jurors plus an alternate (a spare) were needed.

Service on juries is a serious obligation of citizenship. It stands somewhere between the priviledge and responsibility of voting and legal obligation to pay one's taxes. I guess it is roughly analogous to filling out your Census form, except that it takes days. When you are called, you respond, but, also unlike a Census, it can happen much more than once a decade.

The "random" selection somehow manages to avoid large categories of people--individuals never called. The people who do respond seem to be called repeatedly. I've been called four times, my wife only once. Virtually no one in my office has been called at all. People in the jury pool in King Country (Seattle) that I met reported similar anomolies. When juror candidates on the case on which I was provisionally assigned this week were asked how many had been called to jury service before, about half the hands went up. That seems odd. How random is this process, really?

It also seems odd that jurors are paid only $10 a day, a small fraction of what an attorney is paid per hour, or any of the civil servants on duty. The reason for the discrimination apparently is because the State can get away with it. The constittutional right to a trial carries with it a duty to serve on juries, so answering a summons is like answering a military draft notice many decades ago.

In the 60s I made the case (in The Wrong Man in Uniform) that payment of military personnel in a manner even close to a wage commensurate with the private sector would produce an immense increase of people willing to serve. As it was, draftees (paid 110 dollars a month in the 60s) were coerced labor. The draftee not only lost his freedom, while his competitors thrived without serving, but the draftee also paid for his own service through artificially low wage rates. In other words, he was taxed with lost time and artificially low wages. (At least he wasn't asked immediately to donate those wages to a military charity.)

Similarly, states and counties conscript a small sergment of the citizenry for jury duty, taking days or weeks of service from them, while other citizens are never called. And for this duty, the jurors are paid a joke wage. If the wage for jury service merely kept up with the legal minimum wage, jurors would earn $60 or so per day. That is not enough to make jury duty lucrative, or even a replacement for private employment, but it would remove much of the sting of financial loss for many artisans, salesmen and self employeed Mom and Pop businesses operators--the kind of people that seem to be under-represented on juries now. It would require the state to summon fewer people in the end. Who will try to justify leaving whole classes of people out of the jury pool?

Indeed, in 2000 a Washington State Jury Commission recommended as its "highest priory" a fee increase for jurors. That was over a decade ago, but the fees remain the same today.

As is, my experiences as a juror demonstrates that the "jury of peers" is actually a jury of a small slice of American society: the elderly, the middle managers in big companies who will not lose their real daily pay while doing jury service and especially government employees whose jury service is well accepted and respected.

Jury service is an opportunity to see the real justice system--not the TV version--from the inside. It often is a positive experience that people later treasure. One should answer the summons in any case. It's your citizen's duty--just as a jury trial of your peers is a constitutional right. But the system in turn has a responsibility not to abuse the pool of juror candidates by summoning the same ones over and over, and then making those called bear the cost of virtually all their lost wages.

I suspect that the reason the interests of jurors are treated this way is that there is no "jurors lobby", no juror voting constituency politicians have to care about. People are called, serve (or more likely, don't serve) and then go home. They may like or dislike the experience, but they are not likely to question it publicly.

Present company excepted.

You can email brucechapman@discovery.org


I think I’ve got you beat Bruce. I’ve been called for Jury duty 4 times in the past ten years. In fact, I was called two years in a row. At that point I was voting guilty no matter what just because I figured that the person must have done something to get themselves accused of a crime, inconveniencing me yet again. Fortunately for potential innocents, I was never selected, I just sat and sat and waited until being dismissed after three days three times and four days once. That’s an unlucky 13 days. I’ll probably be punished now by having my number pulled yet again.

I don't think you realize how corrupt the legal system is. Jurors are used as pawns to legitimize actions by prosecutors and judges. I speak from actual experience in the Colorado injustice system. Prosecutors withhold crucial evidence from the defense, detectives manufacture evidence and substantially alter written forms of witness testimony, and deny medical exams have been done when in fact they were and showed the victim (and prosecutor) was lying. Judges frequently are former prosecutors and have extreme bias against defendants, will suppress normally allowed criminal history of witnesses, and will lie on sentencing paperwork. The court record is frequently altered to eliminate statements made in court that were beneficial to the defendant. And in Colorado, if you frame enough people through introduction of planted evidence, you are appointed a judge. I know about these things from first hand experience.

King County appears to run much the same way.

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