Jury service reform may be resurrected

By Ann Knef | Jan 28, 2005

Ed Murnane If it meant serving the public good, would you dutifully give up a day's wage in exchange for $15-20?

Ed Murnane

Judy Cates

Steve Schoeffel

If it meant serving the public good, would you dutifully give up a day's wage in exchange for $15-20?

Not enough people would, according to proponents of jury service reform.

On a typical day in Illinois, a minimum wage worker earns $52, more than twice the paltry per diem jurors receive. That keeps citizens of various backgrounds from wanting to serve, say reformers.

Attempts at making conditions more favorable for jurors have proven fruitless in recent years in the state legislature. But a proposal to compensate workers up to $300 per day after serving 10 days of a "lengthy" trial will likely be reintroduced this spring. In 2003, a similar measure introduced by State Sen. John Cullerton (D-Chicago) and Sen. Kirk Dillard (R-Westmount) (SB1329) sailed through the state Senate (54-1-1) but was locked down in the House Rules Commiittee.

Illinois Civil Justice League President Ed Murnane said jury service reform will likely be on its legislative agenda and he would support a reintroduction of Cullerton and Dillard's proposal.

"One of the major provision is to reduce the need to plead hardship," Murnane said, "It becomes difficult to serve on jury when it goes on two, three weeks or longer. You never how long a trial will be."

Murane said improved compensation would expand and broaden the jury pool so that there is a wider range of people who are willing and able to serve on a jury.

"It appears to be a disproportionate number of retired workers, unemployed or students who serve," he said. "The bottom line is that we're trying to provide a better, more well-rounded jury pool."

Excuses, excuses
A long-time Madison County courthouse employee said that over time he's seen and heard a lot of unusual attempts by potential jurors seeking to be excused from service.

"One guy said he was diabetic and he'd have to lift his shirt to give himself an insulin shot," the courthouse employee said. "Many times I've heard (potential) jurors say they're going out on dates. I've heard they're indigent and can't serve. And some have come in under the influence of drugs and some with illegal drugs in their possession."

But St. Clair County plaintiff's attorney Judy Cates, and second vice president of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association, doesn't agree that jury pools have imbalanced representation.

"It's just not true," Cates said, adding that in two years she has gone to trial three times--"and I doubt anyone else has gone as many times as I.

"I can tell you that judges don't let off (jurors) because of economic hardship. Everyone has jobs."

Cates said "hardship" stories are heard time and again, but it doesn't make a difference in the end.

"How many times do people come in with their stories...I'm a one-person income family, my kids have to be picked up from daycare. There are so many complaints.

"The only person I am aware of that was let off was a teacher and she taught the deaf and it was going to be difficult to find a replacement.

"But, do I think that we should pay jurors more? Yes."

Murnane said that reforming jury service is also aimed at easing the burden for small business owners. Another reform provision would allow a potential juror an automatic exemption, without qualification.

For instance, if one employee is activated to jury service, another employee in that same business could be excused.

Executive director of the Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch, Steve Schoeffel, said more participation by a wider segment of the population would help improve the judicial climate in Madison County.

"When people ask what they can do to bring about change, we tell them to serve as jurors. Do their part," said Schoeffel

"It is so common to see people wanting to get out of jury duty. There's a perception that it's really boring.

"And some can't afford to be on jury duty, getting paid a miniscule amount."

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