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California and the West

Jurors May Get 1st Pay Raise Since 1957

Courts: Bill would hike the state's $5 daily stipend. The low compensation is seen as one reason most citizens resist service.


SACRAMENTO — A lot has changed since 1957: hemlines, gasoline mileage, even life expectancy. But California's minimum jury duty pay has remained among the nation's lowest for 43 years: $5 a day.

In that time, costs of baby-sitting, gasoline and parking have zoomed for jurors who may have to pay all three to fulfill their public duty.

And statistics show that Californians are taking their call to jury duty less and less seriously. In some counties, as few as 6% of potential jurors ever take the first step toward jury duty by returning their juror questionnaires.

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George thinks remuneration is one reason.

Most people are "treating [juror forms] like another piece of junk mail," George said recently in his annual remarks to the Legislature.

Pending legislation by Assemblywoman Carole Migden (D-San Francisco) would raise jurors' compensation to at least $12.50 a day. George's goal is $40 a day. During recent budget deliberations, the state Senate approved $25 a day.

In the last national survey on jury fees, completed seven years ago, California ranked near the bottom, tied with New Jersey and paying only 50 cents more than New Mexico. Most states paid between $10 and $20; a few paid nothing for the first day or so but then would jump the pay to as much as $50 for the duration of service.

The governor set aside $12.6 million for a raise in his budget proposal, and George is hopeful he will dedicate more in the revised budget due out today.

As chief justice since 1996, George heads the state Judicial Council, whose attempts to improve the jury duty experience extend beyond money. The council has a new Web site,, that answers a list of frequently asked questions. Jury instructions are being simplified. And in a few cities, comfy juror waiting rooms are in vogue.

Why all the fuss? To George the answer is obvious: If jurors' experience is bad, they won't be back. Typically juries are dominated by the unemployed, retirees and government workers--whose employers require them to serve.

It's rarely "the jury of your peers" promised as far back as the Magna Carta. That shortcoming, George said, not only opens the door to legal challenges but undermines public confidence in the legal process.

"People joke the reason juries are so dumb is if you're so dumb you can't get out of it, you end up on a jury," he said.

The National Center for State Courts found in a 1998 survey that jurors were upset about loss of income, poor treatment and excessive waits in dingy environs. Only about half said they would volunteer for jury duty again.

Such concerns were obvious during George's tour of courts in all 58 counties during his first year as chief justice. He saw jury assembly rooms without phones or coffee machines and one without a room at all. Jurors waited on concrete steps, occasionally jostled by shackled prisoners.

He was further influenced by his own call to jury duty in Los Angeles County two years ago. George knew no defense attorney would let him serve, but he wanted to see the experience from ground level. That ended up being literally the case.

"I sat on the marble floor waiting for the jury assembly room to open," he said. "By the time I got inside . . . there weren't any seats left."

By contrast, San Francisco's new state-of-the-art courthouse includes a spacious jury assembly room with cherrywood furniture and jacks for laptop computers. Modesto installed a cappuccino machine. Alameda put in a pool table. Some courthouses show movies, and even a few counties on shoestring budgets have managed to get furniture and paint donated by businesses.

The jurors' lot improved significantly in January, when a "one day, one trial" law, signed last year took effect. It promises jurors they will be released after the first day of jury duty if they are not placed on a trial, instead of keeping them in limbo for 10 days.

Unfortunately for Los Angeles County jurors, L.A. County was one of two counties granted exemptions. The county argued that the costs of complying quickly would be prohibitive and got an extension until 2002. Tiny Alpine County got a one-year extension.

Prospects appear good for a pay raise this year. A bill by Migden similar to the current proposal passed both houses of the Legislature two years ago, only to be vetoed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson.

Migden's bill includes a pilot project in a few counties to pay for care for children and other dependents, when jurors can prove they are primary caregivers.

Aside from cost to the state, the main argument against a raise is that jury service is a public duty, which should be performed for free if necessary. Working against that philosophical position, George said, is reality: By the time they pay for transportation, parking and lunch, jurors lose money on the deal.

On its Web site, the San Francisco Superior Court--which pays $5 a day and $1.50 for mileage--advises jurors that nearby parking "ranges from $6-13."


The Price of Jury Duty

California pays $5 a day for jury duty, among the lowest in the nation. Pending proposals to increase jury fees range from the $12 a day already in the governor's budget to the $25 a day approved by the Senate.

Source: Through the Eyes of the Jurors, National Center for State Courts, 1998.

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