Saturday, May 14

SHOULD JUROR STIPENDS IMPACT JURY SERVICE?

There is a below-the-fold story on the front page of today's edition of the "Houston Chronicle" (and under the "State" news' section of the online edition) announcing that the Texas' Senate has given "preliminary approval to Senate Bill 1704, which would raise court costs for those convicted of crimes to boost juror pay from $6 a day to $40."

At first glance the story appears to be exclusively devoted to the economics of jury service and having just answered the call myself to jury service last week, it naturally caught my attention. I can tell you a good deal of critical grumbling was overheard when the particular group I was in, which had reported faithfully, along with many others, at 8:00am was told around 10:00am to return to the district courtroom of a particular judge for voire dire jury selection at 1:30pm. The most recurring complaint was that (and remember I live in big ol' Texas) the first day stipend of $6.00 wouldn't come close to defraying the cost of just the gasoline alone for the double roundtrip from home or business, not to mention lunch or lost wages.

Of course, even if the pending legislation is ultimately passed the $40.00 per diem still wouldn't kick in until Day #2 of jury service, rendering what I just described as academic; and, too, understand that many are called, but few are chosen, so the $6.00 pittance will remain the payment for most for having dutifully answered the jury summons as good citizens. I was in a group of about 50 potential jurors from whom 12 were chosen. Afterwards, those of us not chosen were told we were done and had fulfilled our obligation. And, by the way, most juries are selected in the mornings and trials get underway the same day and typically run just two to three days, so, at best (I'll use three days as a benchmark) the payment made to someone seated on a jury in Texas will increase from $18 to $86. That's a significant percentage increase, but hardly anything approaching dollar-for-dollar defrayal for most.

But, I digress, for having plunged into the article, I found the story by Chronicle reporter Polly Ross Hughes taking a marked turn, as she quotes Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), the bill's sponsor:

Low-income and minority Texans are drastically under-represented on our juries at levels that jeopardize the constitutional legitimacy of many convictions. Latinos, for example, comprise more than 30 percent of Dallas and Harris counties, but make up only 10 percent of jury (pools).
Reporter Hughes goes on to cite Senator Ellis' explanation for such low participation:

Texas ranks dead last in the nation in what we pay our jurors.


With this scandalous revelation, Huges continues:

In Harris County, residents of predominantly white, affluent neighborhoods are up to seven times more likely to show up for jury duty than those in the county's low-income, mostly minority neighborhoods, a Houston Chronicle study has found. Overall the jury participation rate in Harris County is 17 percent. However, in neighborhoods with median annual income of $77,083, participation exceeds 30 percent. In neighborhoods with a median income of $29,636, turnout is less than 10 percent.
You mean to tell me citizens are not doing their duty, are defying the law in droves, and Texas' courts are not issuing bench warrants for those who fail to answer the summons? And here's a Texas Democrat, dutifully backstopped by the "Houston Chronicle's" crack research team, telling me (certainly implied) that were I a minority I'd have had an economic right to shun the call from the justice system in my county of residence to make myself available for jury duty because the stipend wasn't sufficient to keep me in the lifestyle I am accustomed to. What utter nonsense!

If the Texas legislature wants to raise the stipend, fine; but don't tell me the rationale is to encourage people to do what they are legally required to do. $40 per diem or $75 per diem, or even a $100 per diem, does not defray the costs to appear for anyone deemed "affluent," yet they report as ordered. Since when does show me the money become the raison d'etre for jury service?

And this notion that our justice system requires a better cross-section of society (particularly in economic terms) in order to ensure its optimization in the jury room is so much baloney. The defense attorney I sat before last week pretty much confined his voire dire questioning to whether the prospective jurors were Democrats or Republicans. He wasn't seeking intelligent, educated, objective jurors, whose backgrounds would lend themselves to the careful weighing of the evidence and the enlightened discernment of the truth. Rather, he was looking for the biases rooted in "life's experiences" that might lend themselves to a verdict (or deadlock) vindicating his client from the charge of felonious possession of, with intent to distribute, a brick of Methamphetamine. His guileless approach in ferreting out bleeding hearts was an open book and an affront to my intelligence and respect for the law.

But back to the group of which I was a member that day and among whom there was some grumbling. Once assigned numbers and seated in numerical order in the courtroom for voire dire they did the American system of justice and the requirements of citizenry in a free society proud. Only two among the fifty or so even came close in their responses to questions from the trial judge, the prosecuting attorney, and the defense attorney, in appearing in their answers to be trying to assure that they would not land in the jury box. In almost every instance after they responded and were subsequently asked -- "But can you still be objective? -- they responded in the affirmative.

I'll never know how many prospective jurors failed to appear at all last Monday (there was a noticeable dearth of minorities in the assembly area, consistent with the theme of the Chronicle story); but, unless they were ill and incapacitated, there's no excuse for failing to appear. By the way, in Texas "financial hardship" can be a legitimate reason for not serving; but, you're still obliged to appear on the date and at the time shown on your jury summons and then you may subsequently make your appeal to the judge.

The law is the law. Minorities cannot exempt out of it regardless of what certain liberal Democrats think.