As if jury service weren't trying enough, Los Angeles County jurors are doing it gratis.
They already serve long hours performing their civic duty for a paltry $15 a day. And if they don't show up, they may be fined as much as $1,500. But for the last month, the Superior Court has not kept up its end of the bargain. The last checks went out Aug. 2, and the unpaid bill has reached $656,413.
Who's to blame? The politicians, of course, judges say. Because the state was so late in approving a budget, the Superior Court simply ran out of money to pay jurors. Checks will be in the mail soon, court officials promise. But no other California county has delayed juror payments, state officials said.
Julie Vlasich, one of 35,339 former jurors owed money, isn't holding her breath.
"I'm not waiting by the mailbox," she said. "Who knows when it will be there?"
Jury Services Director Gloria Gomez said the court ran out of funds when the state Legislature missed a deadline for passing the budget. "There was just no more money," she said. "It's out of the court's control."
The budget impasse ended Thursday when Gov. Gray Davis approved the spending plan. The money should start flowing again soon, Gomez said.
But the state budget problems have not stopped other large counties from paying their jurors. In Alameda, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside, San Francisco and San Diego counties, court officials haven't missed a payday. San Diego did it by tapping a $30-million reserve, said Stephen Thunberg, executive officer of the courts.
In Los Angeles, jurors' $15 a day begins on the second day of service. They also receive 15 cents a mile for travel expenses, one way. Jurors typically get their checks about two weeks after they complete service.
Los Angeles County has traditionally had a tough time finding enough jurors to satisfy the court's huge demand. About 75,000 to 100,000 citizens a week are summoned just to get the estimated 12,000 prospective jurors needed.
Judges have cracked down recently on jurors who ignore the summons, imposing fines as high as $1,500. Court officials are also scrutinizing prospective jurors' hardship excuses, and continue to urge employers to pay their workers while they serve. Jury service has been made more convenient, though, and jurors now spend only one day in court, unless they are selected for a jury.
Vlasich spent 2 1/2 weeks on a jury. Every day, the Woodland Hills resident commuted to the Santa Monica courthouse to listen to testimony in a case of a tenant who sued his landlord after his rental home burned down.
Vlasich said she didn't find out about the payment holdup until she called the court to find out why she hadn't received her check.
"Fifteen dollars a day doesn't make much of a difference for me," she said. "I think I spent more than that on lunch every day. It was more the point. They make you serve, now, and then they don't have any money in the bank to pay you."
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Jacqueline Connor said the pay problem is an insult to jurors.
"There is just no excuse for it," she said, adding that the $15 daily stipend is embarrassing in itself.
But Connor noted that jurors have not been the only victims of the state's budget impasse. Among those forced to wait for checks have been needy college students, elderly and disabled people, and lawmakers and their staffs. "I'm just glad the budget impasse is resolved," the judge said.
Superior Court spokesman Allan Parachini said the court didn't have a choice about the jury payments and emphasized that all jurors will receive their checks.
"All money owed will be paid out," he said. "We think people understand that the state has had acute problems passing a budget."