Jeff Kropf

The minimum wage in Washington as of the new year is $8.55 an hour, which translates to $68.40 for an eight-hour work day. But wait! There’s an exception: a group of state employees who literally have power over the life, death and property of their fellow Washingtonians: trial jurors.

In Washington, statutory compensation for jurors ranges from $10 to $25 per day – from $1.25 an hour to $3.12 an hour. Plus some unspecified to help with travel mileage. Little wonder so few people see much incentive, apart from civic responsibility, in serving on juries.

Not to single out Washington here. In Oregon, the rate is $10 for the first two days and $25 after that, and eight to 20 cents for mileage. In Idaho, it’s $10 a day and mileage. Rates like this might have made sense around the time of statehood, but certainly not any more.

In his state of the judiciary speech on Friday, Washington Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerry Alexander took on the matter, in the face of a huge budget crunch. After running through the pay increases he isn’t asking for this year, he said this:

Since we are not asking for any funding of new programs, I suppose I could stand down now and head back across the street. But I don’t want to do that without addressing a familiar issue that we believe deserves attention by this legislature. It is an issue that I have highlighted in each of the previous State of the Judiciary addresses I have presented to you. It concerns Washington’s low rate of pay for our jurors. Let me quickly add that we have not set forth any amount in our proposed budget to fund an increase in the attendance fee for the reasons I have already given. We will, though, seek introduction of a bill that would provide for an increase in the fee.

To refresh your memory, the daily attendance fee for jury service is set by statute at no less that $10 per day and no more than $25. Significantly, almost every jurisdiction in the state pays the minimum of $10. That fee was established in 1958, a time when $10 was roughly equivalent to the minimum wage for a day’s work. It is clear that today the fee is woefully inadequate and its meagerness is evidenced by the fact that for a five-day trial, Washington ranks 45th out of 50 states in terms of jury compensation.

To the legislature’s great credit, you did fund the pilot project that allowed us to raise the fee in three jurisdictions to an amount akin to the current minimum wage. You also underwrote the cost of a study of the effect of the fee increase on the response to the jury summons by persons called for jury duty, juror satisfaction, and the diversity of our jury panels. While the study, a copy of which you should have received this week, does reveal greater juror satisfaction on the part of those who received the higher fee, it was not entirely clear what effect the increase had on responses to the jury summons—that may have been due, in part, to the fact that many, if not most, prospective jurors were not entirely aware of the fact that the attendance fee had been increased.

But regardless of whether an increase in the fee will get more citizens to fulfill this important responsibility of American citizenship, the fee should be increased as a matter of equity. Even though we are getting jurors to serve, we believe that it is simply not fair to pay them such a low fee, particularly those who devote more than one day to jury service.

The amounts would be small in the context of the Washington state budget. But the impact on people who decide important issues could be outsized.

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