The Financial Impact of Jury Service: Does Civic Duty Cost Too Much?

6 years ago

Last month, I received a jury summons in the mail. I dutifully called in to report myself. I was instructed to come to the courthouse, where I, along with 29 other members, were prompted seated in a courtroom as a potential jury pool. In the courtroom, the presiding judge gave a speech thanking us for showing up, and then emphasized that no one will be dismissed for financial hardship. "We must all make alternate arrangements and financial hardship wouldn't be a reason to be excused," he admonished. But just how much hardship will jury duty cause? So, I started counting the dollars.

Most people I know treat the jury service with resigned reluctance, if not outright hostility. Just Google "how to get out of jury service," and you will see folks comparing the institution to indentured servitude. I understand our civil and criminal justice system depend on jurors. But looking at the dollars, it's not hard to know why people regard a jury summons with dread or trepidation. One of the biggest reasons is the high financial impact of jury duty, especially for folks who are self-employed, own small businesses, or whose employers do not pay for jury service. How high is this financial impact? Let's crunch some numbers.

Credit Image: Richard Masoner/Cycleicious on Flickr

In California, courts pay nothing for Day 1 of jury service. Thereafter they pay jurors $15 per day. We do receive free parking and $0.34 per mile in terms of gas allowance. States such as New York are more generous, paying $40 per day. Even with the highest jury compensation, however, the financial impact of a trial on a juror can be staggering.

For example, let's say that a self-employed contractor was selected to be on a jury. This contractor who makes $30 per hour, assuming an eight-hour work-day, typically earns $1,200 gross a week. Let's say that taxes take 25%, so at the end of the day she makes $900 per week. If she has to serve on a five-day trial, she would only be making $60 ($0 for Day 1, $15/day for Days 2-5) in my county. Jury pay is also taxable as is other forms of income, so after a 25% tax rate the $60 turns into $45. For her five-day service, this contractor would have lost $900 in net income and earned $45 in net income. That's a net loss of over $850! A ten-day trial would cost her $1,700 in loss of income. It is not hard to see how this cost can escalate into the thousands for a longer trial.

Or, how about a stay-at-home mom who takes care of her two children. To attend a 5-day trial, she would have to find alternate child care for at least 10 hours of the day (8 hours in the courthouse, 2 hours commute). Unless she can find family members who can watch her children for free, she would need paid help. Let's say that hiring a babysitter to take care of two children would cost $15 per hour. This means that the mom would have to pay $750 over the course of five days.

During the jury selection phase, I can see my fellow potential jurors try to be excused. One young man stated respectfully but honestly that he would vote with whatever side that will come to a verdict the quickest, because he couldn't afford to not work. Another person engaged the prosecution in a philosophical discussion on pain and suffering until the irate judge cut him short. I have to be honest and say that I breathed a huge sigh of relief when the defense attorney excused me.

Jury duty would be much better received if this responsibility also came with higher compensation. Instead of $15 per day, how about $15 per hour? Or, how about we offer tax deductions for those who serve on a jury? After all, jury service entails a very real financial cost on citizens. If we want to help people become more engaged in the process, we have to acknowledge and improve the current financial cost.

Savvy Living Through Personal Finance

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