By Magdalena Wnuk
One of the most outstanding features of American democracy is its highly participatory character and ability to engage regular citizens in the state and community matters.
One of the best examples of this are jurors. Either grand, petit or civil – they all serve a great cause in a democratic system, as they pull people out of their comfort zones and engage them in issues that though not their won, are of great importance for the society.
As a person from a country with different traditions, I never had doubts that jury duty is one of the democratic practices most respected in American society.
So when I learned how Pennsylvania treats its jurors, I was surprised. One of the oldest and most symbolic states in this country seems to have forgotten about the people who serve their duty here.
Jury duty is usually associated with trials and verdicts. When I think of it I see so many scenes from American movies and series – most of them serious and emotional.
The reality, however, is not always as sublime. Often, being called for jury duty means ending up spending a day waiting for being called to the trial. It is a normal job that keeps you from doing your regular job.
When jurors are summoned for the service they have to skip their work day in order to come to the trial.
As the employer is not obliged to pay them in their absence, they are compensated for that in public money. To that point everything seems fair apart from the fact that in Pennsylvania jurors get paid $9 per day. This is an amount insufficient to buy a proper meal in the center of Philadelphia.
There are citizens in various material situations and it should be taken into account. It is difficult to imagine that such persons, for whom every hour of work is a significant contribution to the household budget, can focus on and appreciate their duty as jurors.
The same person in New York or Washington D.C. will be compensated in $40, in Maryland in $15 (also nothing to be proud of but still a higher rate). Actually the $9 compensation is one of the lowest in the country. And it is taxable income.
To make the case even more astonishing – Pennsylvania jurors are usually will be paid by check – a method that costs three times what the juror gets for the duty. Is it really the most reasonable way of spending taxpayers’ money?
It is only fair and rational to do something about. Raising up the compensation and changing the payment method does not seem the toughest legislative challenge to overcome. But someone has to initiate it.
Obviously the jury duty is not something one should expect to earn money on. But if the compensation becomes humiliation the system does not serve the cause.
We cannot expect people to respect the system if they are not respected. And disrespect for democracy and its institutions is something very dangerous and should never be disregarded.
Magdalena Wnuk is a policy analyst, researcher and project manager for Association 61 in Warsaw, Poland, which pushes for transparency in public life. In September 2019 she visited Philadelphia as an International Media Fellow sponsored by the U.S. State Department, where she collaborated with Bellevue Strategies in Philadelphia, which submitted this op-Ed on her behalf.