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Why Are Jurors Expected to Work for Below-Market Wages?

Mises Daily: Friday, October 18, 2013 by

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Jury duty garners complaints from those who have been drafted into service, but it seldom gets media attention. Other than when there is a celebrity involved (e.g., when Oprah Winfrey was chosen for a murder trial), juries seem to enter public discourse only when there is a sensational case, such as the upcoming trial for Aurora theater shooting suspect James Holmes.

Even when juries get noticed, it is not the inefficiencies and the waste of juror time that get the attention, yet the large number of jurors to be called for sensational cases (6,000 for the Holmes trial) often makes those problems more obvious than usual.

Serious inquiry highlights the single most effective reform available: ensuring a sufficient number of qualified jurors by paying them what their time is really worth. Because jury system problems primarily arise from treating jurors as if their time has little or no value, paying jurors instead of drafting them would produce real advantages over our current system, not just in lower costs to society, but in better dispensing dependable justice.

The greatest inefficiency of current jury service is its huge waste of juror time (e.g., 165,000 of 6 million Californians who performed jury duty actually served on a case last year). But with juror services essentially costless to judges and lawyers, they have little reason to reduce the waste. If jurors were paid something that reflected the true value of their time, they would be utilized far more effectively.

Another problem is uncomfortable and unpleasant jury facilities. With drafted jurors, there is little incentive to accommodate their preferences. If they had to be recruited voluntarily, like other employees, they would be willing to work for less under more pleasant conditions, and courts would provide for more juror comfort and convenience to cut the cost of wages.

No-shows are another major problem which increases both costs and administrative difficulties. Courts have to guess how many draftees will actually appear, wasting many jurors’ time on many days, and wasting court resources when there are too few jurors. Jurors paid a market rate for their time would show up like other employees whose jobs depend on it, reducing such waste.

Underpriced jurors cause other problems. Facing below-market costs for juror time, some courts limit jurors’ ability to take written notes, leading to delays, mistakes and avoidable jury room disputes over what was actually said. Similarly, jurors are often restricted in submitting questions to clarify their understanding, or to discuss the trial during breaks, causing confusion and wasted juror and court time. If jurors had to be paid a competitive wage, such time-wasting practices would be trimmed.

If jurors were paid, attorneys would be pushed to use plain language rather than legalese to facilitate more efficient communication. Tighter time constraints would be imposed to force attorneys to make their points more quickly and clearly, and to avoid repetitive questions (a pet peeve of jurors). Paid jurors would also spur other efficiencies, such as speeding up jury selection (e.g., by limiting peremptory challenges).

Paying jurors would also induce jurors to become more educated on the law, evidence, and procedure, reducing the chance of mistrials and the resources now devoted to ensuring jurors understand and follow the rules.

Offering sufficient inducement to attract “professional” jurors would also make justice more reliable as professional jurors would seek to cultivate a reputation as reliable and unbiased.

Currently, the primary incentive of many drafted jurors is to finish their involuntary servitude faster. That offers little assurance of attentive jurors or evenhanded rulings (not to mention creating big payoffs to jury consultants for finding “leaners” who can change the outcome in their direction). In contrast, paid jurors’ incentives would be more like those of current mediators, which litigants increasingly find preferable to court trials.

Mediators must be thorough and evenhanded if they want to continue in that role, because they must remain acceptable to both sides involved. Obvious bias or sloppiness would end their careers. Those wanting to continue to serve as paid jurors would similarly want to be fair and balanced, to preserve that possibility. Since, as according to California’s courts assert, “the duties of a juror are as important as the duties of a judge,” these incentives are crucial.

Jurors are the only resource our justice system treats as essentially costless, though, as with a military draft, the very real costs are really “paid” by the draftees. Our current system is made slower, more wasteful and more inequitable because the costs imposed on jurors, which all too often are a serious financial and personal hardship for many, are essentially ignored.

Americans’ right to a jury trial does not imply that drafting jurors is the best way to provide that right. A paid volunteer juror system would be an important positive reform, bringing us closer to providing the “liberty and justice for all” that is the goal.