A few days ago Johnson County summoned my daughter for jury duty. She spent the morning at the courthouse, and was then dismissed.
The experience was eye-opening, nonetheless.
Johnson County pays $10 a day for jury duty, plus mileage. Because my daughter is paid by the hour at her job, the half-day of quasi-service ended up costing her almost a day’s wages.
Paying jurors just $10 a day is ridiculous. It equals $1.25 an hour, less than 20 percent of the minimum wage.
Jurors may have to pay to park and eat lunch. Some jurors must find day care for their young children. For many jurors a lengthy trial is a significant hardship.
Until this week the county had a ready answer for its penny-pinching. “The $10 per day rate was established by the Legislature in 1971 and has not been amended since that time,” the county’s website said Monday.
The statement was false. In fact, it was so wrong the county changed the website language after I asked about it.
Kansas law actually sets $10 a day as the minimum for jurors. The maximum is $50 a day, a change added in 2006.
That means jurors in Johnson County could be getting five times as much compensation as they are. All it takes is for county commissioners to step forward, which the website now acknowledges.
Would $50 a day fix the problem? Hardly. Jurors would still be paid below the minimum wage. In fact, when you adjust for inflation, jurors should be getting $62 a day just to match the $10 they got in 1971.
By any measure, jurors are being cheated.
County officials know this. Potential jurors get a pamphlet that makes the point explicit: “Jury duty will likely involve some financial sacrifice,” it says.
Predictably, not everyone shares in that sacrifice. The judge is paid a 2017 wage. The lawyers, too. The prosecutors, the guards, the clerks, the stenographers — they’re all paid.
Only jurors are expected to work for wages that would get any other employer thrown in the clink. No wonder most of them are upset from the moment they enter the courtroom.
Naturally, politicians try to cover up the gross inequity by waving the flag and playing the French horns. Jury duty is a “solemn obligation of all qualified citizens,” state law says. “The jury system is an important part of democracy in America,” the website insists.
Fine. If jury service is that important, pay for it. Minimum wage, at least. Free lunch. Free parking.
Some states require all but the smallest employers to pay workers for jury duty. That’s another possibility.
Don’t listen to anyone who claims jury service is like voting, and shouldn’t be compensated. Voting is quick and doesn’t cost you money. Jury service is onerous. And no one else in the courtroom is working for $1.25 an hour.
Defenders of the current system say jurors who face the biggest financial hurdles are usually dismissed from duty. That means jurors are often wealthy, or retired — making a mockery of the idea of a jury of the defendant’s peers.
And it misses the point. If justice is valuable, then so is the time of the citizens who dispense it.
Raising juror pay wouldn’t break the county’s bank. By some estimates, paying everyone $50 a day would cost between $150,000 and $250,000 more a year. Any county that can spend $182 million for a new courthouse can pay the jurors who will sit there.
There is no reason Kansas and its counties can’t come up with reasonable compensation for jury service. They should do so next year.
Then we’ll focus on Missouri. In Jackson County, jurors get $6 a day.