Jury Reform: More pay and get people who care

By Ed Murnane | Aug 4, 2007

Madeline Byrne was a bit surprised -- and not happy -- when she received her summons to report for jury duty in Sanford, N.C.

Madeline Byrne was a bit surprised -- and not happy -- when she received her summons to report for jury duty in Sanford, N.C.

Madeline didn't receive her summons as most of us do -- deposited in our mail box. She received hers when a local sheriff handed it to her through an open window in her car.

The AP reports:

The 64-year-old woman was ordered to report for jury duty a little more than an hour later at the Lee County courthouse in Sanford, N.C. When Byrne protested, the sheriff told her: "Be there or you'll be in contempt."

We don't issue a jury summons that way in Illinois but we do have a jury system that needs serious reform, serious tweaking.

One of the most critical reforms is an increase in jury compensation. If Madeline Byrne had been in Illinois, you could understand why she didn't want to be a juror.

While jurors are expected to be compensated, in Illinois they are practically volunteers. Illinois law spells out that jurors be paid between $4 per day and $40 per day. That's right: a juror in Illinois could be summoned to serve for compensation of $4 for a day.

We're not sure if that ridiculous fee is in practice in any Illinois counties but we do know that jurors in the largest county, Cook, receive less than $20 for a full days' service. A juror who can't use public transportation but must drive can not find parking for less than $20 within a reasonable distance of the courthouse.

There are other serious problems with our jury system in Illinois and one of the major obstacles to reform have been -- surprise, surprise -- the people who proclaim they are the "guardians and defenders of the right to trial by jury."

That's right, the plaintiffs' attorneys in Illinois -- represented and directed by the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association and their partner, the Illinois State Bar Association, have been the primary opponents of jury reform in Illinois.

There have been several attempts to improve the "jury problem" in Illinois, including earlier this year, but they have been stymied.
On several occasions, the Illinois Civil Justice League has proposed legislation that would begin correcting the problem.

It has been a bipartisan effort with Senate sponsorship provided by Chicago Democrat John Cullerton, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and DuPage County Republican, Kirk Dillard, the Co-chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Earlier this year, SB 1548 was introduced by Senator Dillard. A comprehensive jury reform package that included most elements of a bill passed by the Illinois Senate just two years ago, it was doomed from the start.

The reason?

Senate President Emil Jones wanted to reform the jury act too, but only by expanding the eligible jury pool to add low income people.
The bill as introduced would have expanded the jury pool to include Illinois citizens claiming an earned income tax credit.

In response, the Illinois Civil Justice League proposed an amendment that would have expanded the jury lists to include all citizens on the tax rolls.

In addition, the ICJL amendment would have included some other jury reforms that had been approved in recent years by the entire Senate.

However, the Senate Democrat leadership was not receptive to our proposals and the bill was kept in the Rules Committee, despite the fact that identical language had been passed almost unanimously (58-1) by the Senate only a few years earlier.

The ICJL intends to redraft a jury reform proposal for consideration next year and it will include these elements, some of which are new:

  • Jurors must be registered voters.

  • Juror must speak English fluently.

  • Jurors must be fairly compensated, especially in lengthy trials.

  • Employers must be protected from having too many employees on jury duty at one time.

    Current law in many states, including Illinois, does not require that a prospective juror be a registered voter. A registered voter gets on the eligibles list, but so do licensed drivers. So will people on the "earned income tax credit list" if Senator Jones and the bill's sponsor, Sen. Don Harmon, have their way.

    It just seems logical that if a person is qualified (or wants to be viewed as qualified) to serve on a jury, that person ought to have demonstrated an interest and willingness to participate in the American system of governance, which includes being eligible to vote.

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