I value jury duty as an absolutely important component of our criminal and civil judicial systems.
In a nation founded on liberty and justice it’s critical to have a panel of citizens determine the outcomes of one’s personal or financial well-being. Otherwise, it would be dangerous and unjust to always vest too much power in one person, a judge, to determine the fates of the parties involved. The opinion of one can be swayed by personal beliefs, stereotypes, ignorance, sympathy and, in extreme cases, kickbacks. That absolute and often times flawed power is cast aside by a body of jurors who have to, as a group, overcome those individual flaws to come to a consensus.
Twice I’ve gone through the jury selection process, once missing a day of work, another time missing a week. I didn’t fret too much about it because, as a guy who walks around with a copy of the Constitution in his back pocket, I value what I as a citizen can do to protect and ensure justice.
I also value when that belief comes around to serve me.
A couple of years ago my company was embroiled in a civil lawsuit. The incredibly stressful trial lasted two weeks. Had we been found liable for the injuries that our product was alleged to have caused, the company would have likely gone out of business. Fortunately, the jury saw that improper and unsafe use of the product led to the chain of events. I was thankful for the jury system because it saw what was right and wrong and in turn saved our 45-year legacy and the jobs of more than 200 people.
Despite my belief in all the grandeur and almost sacred importance of this civic obligation I know it can also become an agonizing and financially-harmful burden to the juror if taken in excess.
In the previous examples, jury duty was manageable. A day. A week. A couple of weeks. Those are reasonable expectations when it comes to saving a life or business, ensuring fairness, punishing those who deserve it and making the injured and aggrieved whole.
But, when it comes to grand jury service those expectations are exceeded to the point of becoming completely unreasonable.
I’m seeing it secondhand.
I work with a young man who was recently selected for federal grand jury in Buffalo. He has to report once a week — for 12 months — and they could tack on an additional six months. And, by the way, he’s getting off easy: It should be 18 months with a six-month permissible extension.
Think about that.
At a minimum he will lose 50 days of pay (I’m assuming a break for the holidays). As much as someone would love to be a nice guy, no employer can be expected to grant someone 50 days of pay for no work above and beyond the paid days off given in a healthy benefits package. So, he will have to cover his lost income with a $50 per diem from the feds or by sprinkling his paid-time-off benefits through his service, which cuts back on his vacations. So, depending on what he does, he will lose somewhere between 15% and 20% of his income this year. A fifth of his earnings disappear to satisfy the courts.
Virtually everyone on that 23-person jury is in the same boat. They’re losing money. Their employers are losing them. If they are a caregiver their families are losing them. It’s not fair to the jurors unless, of course, they work for the federal government as they are paid their full salary (go figure).
It’s definitely a system in need of reform. Shorter stints would ensure that jurors aren’t financially hurt, employers have their employees and frustrated participants won’t become careless with their duties and hateful of the court system that may one day be needed to help them.
Getting reform is not easy, though.
The main body of federal grand jury law goes back to Rule 6 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure adopted by order of the Supreme Court in 1944 and then approved by Congress in 1946.
It may seem unusual that the rules are promulgated by the Supreme Court since it’s the judicial body, not a legislative one. But, it can because of statutory authority unfortunately granted by Congress under the Rules Enabling Act of 1934.
While Congress has the power to reject the high court's proposals, modify them, or enact rules or amendments on its own, it has rarely rejected the court's proposed amendments, though it has occasionally passed its own.
So, it’s somewhat of an uphill battle.
Would Congress be interested enough in the financial well-being of good citizens to lord over the Supreme Court?
Would the unelected and unaccountable Supreme Court listen to the common man and amend their rules?
The answer to both is probably “no.”
But, it’s worth a try, especially when one considers that a third of all House members are lawyers and half the Senate is. They should know full well the complaints that people have with the judicial system and understand the value it brings to citizens when it’s administered justly … justly for the parties involved and the jurors.
Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. Email him at email@example.com.