It’s happened to almost everybody: You go to the mailbox, and inside you find an ominous, official-looking envelope. Then you see those words that make your heart sink – jury duty! What if you don’t have time for it right now? In the eyes of the government, that’s too bad. You have to show up or get in big trouble. Wouldn’t it be nice to have jury service work on your time, for a change?
Most people don’t like jury duty. It’s more than being forced to work at some job against their will that makes them feel that way, it’s also the money involved. Federal jury service pays $5 an hour, which is less than minimum wage. States, counties, and cities are even worse, with some paying jurors as little as $1 an hour! What other job can force you into difficult work for almost nothing?
You may wonder why it matters that the official pay is low. After all, doesn’t your employer have to pay you while you’re on jury duty? For most Americans, the answer to that is NO. At the federal level, for instance, employers only have to pay you for your time on the jury if you’re considered an “exempt” employee by the rules of the U.S. Department of Labor. Otherwise, you’re at the mercy of your boss and the court system. If your job won’t pay, you might try to claim financial hardship with the court, but that takes a lot of effort and is seldom granted. That leaves you stuck with $5 an hour, or less. It also leaves you stuck with all of your bills, which keep coming in regardless of how little you’re being paid.
Forced jury service isn’t just bad for jurors, it’s also bad for the jury system itself. People who are upset about jury duty are inclined to put in minimal effort, and may even try to undermine the process or rush through it. The dislike of jury duty is so widespread that there’s no way to filter out all of those people. Given that defendants’ freedom or even lives may be at stake, that’s a problem.
So, what then – just pass a law to make jury service voluntary? That may be tempting, but everyone knows it wouldn’t work. Nobody would show up! Most people perceive jury duty to be a miserable experience, and so they avoid it. Simply making it voluntary wouldn’t fix that. Because few people would show up, it would also raise constitutional issues about whether juries that did form would be an adequate cross-section of the public, per the 6th amendment. Fortunately, there’s a solution, and it involves learning from someone else’s mistake.
Instead of a jury summons, imagine getting a letter telling you that you’re about to get shipped off to the other side of the world, far away from your family and friends, and with the implication of a gruesome death waiting for you there. That was how the U.S. military once worked. It used to get soldiers by the draft, which was like a deadly version of jury duty. People were drafted to be soldiers whether or not they wanted to serve, and they weren’t paid well for that burden. Because they wanted to be anywhere but a war zone, many draftees developed bad morale and poor performance.
After Vietnam, the government threw out the draft, and created a military filled only with volunteers. To get people to enlist, it set up incentives to make people want to join the military, instead of forcing them in against their will. The government did this by making the pay and benefits much better than before. Despite predictions at the time that no one would sign up, the military has worked this way for over 40 years. Not only did people sign up, but with soldiers who were paid well and who wanted to be there, the performance of the military improved greatly. If the government could take something as important as military service and successfully make it voluntary, then it can certainly do the same with the jury system.
Goodbye Jury Duty is the name of a plan to throw out jury duty, and create a jury system filled only with volunteers. To get people to sign up, they have to want to be picked. The way to make that happen is to use the military’s solution to the draft, and provide incentives: Offer excellent pay. Turn jury service into a working vacation, with paid hotel rooms, taxis, meals, after-hours entertainment, and weekend parties. Provide childcare, so that parents can have the peace of mind that comes from knowing that their kids are nearby and safe. Enter jurors in a variety of lotteries, with odds that range from 1 in 10 to 1 in 1000 and prizes ranging from concert tickets to cars. The ultimate draw will pay for all of these things many times over: a steady stream of jurors will travel to Washington, D.C., where they will chaperone Congress and the president. Given the success of the military, there should be little doubt that generous incentives like these will work. Once all of them are in place and the bugs have been worked out, then forced jury service can finally meet the same fate as the draft, and the performance of the whole system should jump. Goodbye, jury duty!
The problem of jury duty has been around for ages. Though it’s new to us, the solution to that problem has been possible for just as long. It could easily have been implemented in the 1890s or 1950s. Doesn’t that make you wonder what other chronic problems have solutions that are right under our noses? It turns out there is at least one more problem like that, and it’s both a familiar and pressing one: the condition of the United States itself. Someone else went into a nosedive like the U.S. has. Not only did they pull themselves out of it, they soared. How? By doing something that looks a lot like the idea to eliminate jury duty.
What country is that? Keep reading!