Friday, April 13, 2012

The Cautionary Instruction: Legislation seeks to make jury duty more manageable

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
April 13, 2012

Jury duty can be a burden, but then so can going to work, paying taxes and taking out the garbage. The burden of jury duty goes beyond the inconvenience. Sitting in judgment of a fellow citizen is not something that most people relish.

Maybe that is why, nationally, about 46 percent of people summoned for jury duty actually show up, according to a 2007 survey conducted by the National Center for State Courts.

The “no shows” are excused or disqualified for a variety of reasons, including medical or financial hardship, employment in a job exempt from jury service, dire family circumstances or inaccurate notice -- and, yes, some people just blow-off jury duty.

As a result of the declining numbers, Pennsylvania enacted legislation enabling counties to expand the lists from which they draw potential jurors. Current law permits counties to use state income tax and welfare lists in addition to the voter registration and driver license lists that traditionally have been used to summon jurors.

How can the commonwealth make jury duty more palatable? How about reconsidering pay for jurors. Under current law, jurors are paid $9 a day for the first three days of service and $25 a day for each day thereafter.

State Representative Robert F. Matzie (D-Allegheny/Beaver) said the current payment scheme creates a hardship for many residents who are summoned to jury duty.

In theory more people would do their civic duty if it did not mean money out of their pocket.

Matzie’s bill would require employers to pay a juror's ordinary wage or salary each day that the employee is required to report for service and also require the commonwealth to grant a tax credit to the employer for the amount expended.

"It is important that Pennsylvania law supports citizens in the performance of their civic duty to serve on a jury if summoned," Matzie said in a press release. The bill also addresses related expenses like parking and travel costs.

Matzie’s jury reform effort does not stop at compensation. He has also introduced legislation to exempt the following individuals from jury duty:

• Parents or guardians who have custody of a child younger than seven and who are the primary caregivers of the child.

• Parents or guardians who have custody of a school-age child who has been excused from compulsory attendance at school or special education program and provide instruction for the child.

• Primary caregivers of an elderly or disabled family member.

Some other states have addressed juror compensation. For instance, Texas increased its juror compensation from $6 per day to $6 for the first day and $40 per day thereafter. The Texas compensation is paid exclusively by the state. The Pennsylvania measure is asking private employers to flip the tab in exchange for a tax credit. That may be a more difficult sell.

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