HOUSTON — In an effort to boost jury participation and bring a more representative sample of the community into the courtroom, Texas lawmakers are trying to raise jurors' daily pay rate for the first time in more than 50 years.
While the increase is long overdue here in the Lone Star State, where jurors are among the lowest paid in the nation, most states are wrestling with the same problem: how to entice people into jury service.
A wide range of ideas is being tested, from going outside the usual drivers license and voter rolls, to removing occupational and hardship exemptions, to shortening jury service, and allowing one discretionary postponement.
Some states are making the jury experience more interactive by allowing jurors to take notes and ask questions. Others are trying to make it more convenient, providing private workspace and child care.
But while jury reform is speeding forward, the thorny issue of pay is only now being addressed in earnest.
"It is the last big frontier," says G. Thomas Munsterman, director of the Center for Jury Studies at the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Va. In some counties, he says, parking costs more than what a juror is paid per day.
In Texas, the new bill would increase jury pay from $6 a day to $40 daily after the first day of service. Its sponsor, Sen. Rodney Ellis (D) of Houston, told lawmakers that Hispanics make up more than 30 percent of Dallas and Harris counties, but make up only 10 percent of jury pools.
He believes the primary reason for the underrepresentation of minorities and the poor on juries is the financial constraints associated with service - and that they are coming dangerously close to jeopardizing the constitutionality of many convictions.
His bill has passed the Senate and is still seeking a sponsor in the House.
Jury pay and participation are related, experts say. El Paso County, for example, began paying its jurors $40 a day in 1999 and saw participation rates double.
But hand in hand with increases must come a strong effort to educate the public on why jury service is important, experts say. The American Bar Association has made jury service its highest priority this year - and is getting the word out.
Its American Jury Project has formed a set of standards covering everything from who should be summoned, to what the summons should say, to the last thing the judge should say to jurors before relieving them of their duty, says Patricia Lee Refo, chair of the American Jury Project.
"The old notion is of the juror as the empty vessel into which information is poured. The more modern model is much more interactive," she says. "The idea is to help jurors better comprehend the information they are being given."
In tandem, the bar's 21-member Commission on the American Jury has been educating high school students on the importance of jury service and using airport ads to reach frequent flyers. Last week, the Maryland Judiciary launched a program to recognize employers that fully compensate employees called for jury service.
But for those who are unemployed, self-employed, or work for small companies that can't afford full compensation, some states are going even farther.
Arizona is the first state to enact the lengthy-trial provision of the Jury Patriotism Act. Currently, jurors there are paid $12 a day plus travel expenses. But if a civil trial lasts longer than 10 days, the lengthy-trial fund compensates jurors who aren't being paid in full by their employers.
The minimum is $40 a day, the maximum is $300 (the exact amount depends on the juror's circumstances), financed by a $15 increase in filing fees for civil litigants in superior court. Louisiana, Mississippi and Oklahoma have also passed versions of the lengthy-trial funds.
"We were looking for a way to get money to the people who needed it the most - those who weren't being paid by their employers," says Cary Silverman, an advisor to the American Legislative Exchange Council, which approved the Jury Patriotism Act in 2003. "It impacts our ability to obtain a representative jury if we are completely excluding cab drivers and plumbers, for instance."
But many cash-strapped states have simply looked the other way on jurors' pay. That's dangerous, says Stephan Landsman, an expert on jury service at DePaul University in Chicago, because history has shown that unrepresentative jury pools can undermine a community's confidence in the judicial system and lead to violence.
"What we've done is privatize the jury responsibility," he says. "That's a stopgap measure at best."