Minnesota families are struggling under the weight of a falling economy. Meanwhile, the state’s dedication to civic service is collapsing while Minnesotans’ obligations to work and family continue to grow. Sadly, the governor has a message for you: “I could care less.”
The state courts recently announced a pay cut, not for the lawyers, judges or administrators, but for jurors. Jurors, who are currently paid a “whopping” $20 a day, will have their pay cut in half to $10 a day as of early August. If you are already barely keeping your head above water, working to feed your kids and still finding enough time to spend with them, you have to hope a jury summons never comes in your mailbox.
Minnesotans are now rewarded with $10 a day ($1.25 an hour) for taking time off work and family to serve society on a jury. It’s a slap in the face. By contrast, St. Croix County, Wisconsin, pays $30 a day (the state requires that counties pay at least $16, the rest is up to the county) and federal courts pay jurors $40 a day.
Let’s be clear from the get-go, court administrators bear no responsibility for this decision. Their hands were forced by gross state underinvestment. With this cut we have just one more example of conservative public policy failing Minnesotans.
Employers aren’t required to pay
Employers are not allowed to fire employees for missing work because of jury duty, but they also are not required to pay them. This is especially troublesome for hourly wage earners already hurting in a weak economy who are forced to miss a day of income. The previous $20 a day was never going to burn a hole in people’s pockets. But the cut hurts, and certainly won’t go unnoticed to those already sacrificing plenty, from pay to family time, for a vital civic cause.
You can barely find lunch within walking distance of the Ramsey County courthouse for under $10 – except that great hot dog stand near the entrance on Fourth Street. You are in the red after lunch, much less before you even begin to account for your family dinner that night, travel costs or day care for the kids. The courts reimburse travel at the rate of 27 cents a mile, but with $4-a-gallon gas and a recently proposed bus-fare increase, you’re sure to see red in that transaction as well. They cover $40 for unlicensed day care and $50 for licensed care, great if you want to pay someone less than minimum wage to watch your kids – but even your basic high school sitter is going to charge more than that.
The message from the state is startling: Going to serve on a jury for the day, plan on coming out with a net loss.
No time to divest in civic engagement
It’s symptomatic of a greater problem. State policymakers have stopped investing in civic engagement here in Minnesota. This is a time when our government ought to encourage civic participation, not divest in it. We should be applauding and rewarding jury service. While few people prefer to spend their day waiting in line at a courthouse, jury service is an integral part of our democratic society. Accused citizens are constitutionally promised to be tried by a jury of peers. Our founding fathers made it very clear, without a strong and vibrant jury, justice cannot be served.
As the state continues defunding our judicial system, we’re experiencing justice on the cheap. Consequently, citizens will do everything they can to avoid jury service. And the jury box will be filled only with those who can afford to lose money while serving their state – a group, one would think, that doesn’t represent the diversity promised to defendants with the word “peers.”
At a time when many families are living paycheck to paycheck, a jury summons will spell a big problem for their bottom line, much less their family time. It shouldn’t be this way. It is time for state policymakers to properly invest in our court system. They say crime doesn’t pay, but now jury duty doesn’t either.
Jake Levy-Pollans is a Macalester College 2008 Chuck Green Civic Engagement Fellow at Minnesota 2020, a progressive, nonpartisan think tank based in St. Paul.
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