Jury duty reform discussed with Pa. lawmakers

Feb. 1—HARRISBURG — Lawmakers in the state House on Thursday heard testimony about potential reforms to jury service in Pennsylvania.

The focus during the House Judiciary Committee hearing was namely on raising jurors' base rate of $9 a day, one left unchanged since it was set in 1959, and providing mental health support for those enduring lengthy trials or disturbing testimony and evidence.

Pennsylvania has among the lowest compensation rates. In 1980, lawmakers raised daily compensation to $25 for jurors beyond the third day of service. That's been the only change.

Rep. Tim Briggs, D-Montgomery, the Judiciary Committee chair, has a proposal that would require employers to pay jurors equal to their average rate across the 30 days prior to service, minus compensation received from the county for their service.

Rep. Jason Dawkins, D-Philadelphia, proposes raising the base rate to $40.

Paula Hannaford-Agor, director of the Center for Jury Studies, National Center for State Courts, called jury duty a cornerstone of the American judicial system.

There's a belief, she said, that the supply of prospective jurors is unlimited. It's a faulty belief, she continued, because of the increasing threats from "social and economic barriers" that prevent broader representation of juries.

The average juror compensation across the country was just $16.61 a day in 2022, she said. The maximum average was $27.70, far below the estimated per capita income of $161 daily.

The daily pay for jurors isn't enough to cover parking in most metro areas let alone transportation and lunch.

"Even at the maximum amount most people would lose $100 or more out of pocket for every day that they served," Hannaford-Agor said.

She referred to struggles with anxiety, depression, suicide and substance use disorder. Jurors aren't immune, of course, and their mental health outcomes can be negatively influenced through their service at a trial that might include disturbing testimony in a child rape case, for example, or a high-profile death penalty case.

Hannaford-Agor encouraged the members to consider implementing a support system modeled after the federal court program. It allows jurors serving in high-stress federal trials to receive benefits equivalent to what federal employees receive including debriefing services and up to six free counseling sessions plus referrals to local supports when needed.

Cecelia Perez, the Financial Justice Project Manager for San Francisco, spoke of a pilot program that provides $100 a day compensation to jurors who otherwise couldn't serve due to financial hardships. The median household income of the participating jurors was $38,000, far below the $121,000 median household income for the city.

Perez said the program led to more diverse juries that were better representative of the city's makeup.

"Our goal was to make sure finances were not a barrier to serving," Perez said.

Judge Nina Wright Padilla, president judge of the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas, said she's heard from jurors with sincere concerns that serving could cost them their jobs. She said others had called her chambers during the course of a trial to say they'd been fired, asking her to intervene.

State law protects most workers from being fired by an employer for serving jury duty. But, there are exceptions. The law doesn't extend protections to employers in retail and service industries with 15 or fewer workers, or less than 40 workers in manufacturing. Prospective jurors can cite this part of the law when seeking to be dismissed from consideration.

Also, employers aren't compelled to pay workers serving jury duty.

Wright Padilla suggested the implementation of a sliding scale based on a juror's income.

Patrick Martin, jury commissioner for Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas, said the court paid more than $900,000 in juror fees last year at an average of $14.44 per juror. He said he's not certain what the answer should be but that the rate has been "$9 for way too long."

"Parking in a major city is more than $9. Before they come down here they're in the hole," he said. "It's costing them more to come do their civic duty, and that just shouldn't be."