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Hard economic times hit jury box

By Stephanie Chen, CNN
The economy is becoming a growing excuse for why people can't serve jury duty, experts say.
The economy is becoming a growing excuse for why people can't serve jury duty, experts say.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • More people use economy as excuse to get out of jury duty, experts say
  • Jury duty pay has been stagnant for decades and sometimes fails to cover costs
  • Small businesses say they can no longer afford to cover for absent workers
  • In New York, number of volunteers for just duty has risen

Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) -- Juggling single motherhood in a recession is tough on 50-year-old Felicia Cinnamon. So is working in sales when clients are spending less money these days.

When Cinnamon received a jury summons a few weeks ago, her stomach sank. Not because she didn't want to perform her civic duty but because she couldn't afford to miss a day of work.

On Monday morning at Fulton County Superior Court in Atlanta, Georgia, Cinnamon slumped in her chair in a crowded room of hundreds of potential jurors. She flipped through a book and munched on a granola bar as she talked about the burden of jury duty in tough economic times.

"I work on commission. Missing a day of work has a ripple effect," she said.

People have tried to dodge jury duty for as long the system has existed, but jury commissioners and legal experts say they are hearing more people cite financial hardships and the troubled economy.

With rising unemployment, pay cuts and foreclosures, missing a day or two of work -- let alone spending possibly months on jury duty -- has become impractical for families and business owners alike.

Across the country, voices echo Cinnamon's concerns.

A California woman was near tears when she was summoned for jury duty several weeks ago, said Iloilo Jones, executive director of the Fully Informed Jury Association.

The national group, which educates people on the jury process, says it has received more calls from people with financial hardships who are called to serve on a jury.

With rising medical bills, a disabled child and a recently laid-off husband, the woman didn't want to miss a paycheck, Jones said.

When one small business owner in Texas learned that his employee was called in for jury duty in February, he pitched in for the missed shift, the jury group reported. His company has already experienced layoffs, and the boss was the only one left to fill in, Jones added.

In Illinois' Cook County courts, which call 3,000 people for jury duty each week, jury administrators are hearing the same grumbles about the economy.

Many Americans will encounter jury duty at some point their lifetime, and most people believe that it is an important civic duty, according to a 2004 study from the American Bar Association. More than 60 percent of the people who responded didn't think jury duty would hurt their income. But the study was conducted about four years before the economic meltdown.

No studies have tracked opinions about jury duty since then.

It's no secret that jury duty doesn't pay a lot: $5 a day in some communities, up to $40 a day in New York. But courts usually don't cover the cost of parking and gas, which could mean jurors have to dip into their own already strained pockets.

"Twenty-five dollars for the whole day, that's it?" one 22-year-old woman, on her cell phone to her father, joked as she waited to be called to serve on a panel in Atlanta's Fulton County Court. She had missed work to report to jury duty.

"This is no stimulus package."

Some companies, particularly larger corporations, compensate or excuse workers who serve on juries. But some smaller companies that once covered the cost can no longer afford to do so in the recession, jury experts say.

Laws in most states require companies to excuse workers for jury duty. But it varies whether a company will continue to pay employees serving on juries.

It's getting worse every day.
--Gary Rutz, jury commissioner in Cincinnati, Ohio
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Gary Rutz, the jury commissioner for Hamilton County courts in Cincinnati, Ohio, says he has received letters from companies complaining about losing workers to jury duty.

"It's getting worse every day," Rutz noted.

To ease the wait for jury selection in Atlanta, Patricia Simmons, 65, was reading the book "Running a One-Person Business." She is self-employed, with her own online greeting card company. It allows her to earn extra cash to pay for her bills and retirement.

Her brow furrowed, and she let out a sigh, saying that missing a day of work to report for jury duty has been "an inconvenience." Simmons hoped she wouldn't be selected.

"People shouldn't be punished for serving jury duty," said Jones, of the Fully Informed Jury Association.

She has received dozens of complaints from across the country from cash-strapped families being asked to take time off to serve jury duty.

"It deprives them of their wages, but if they don't go, they can be fined and imprisoned," she said.

Experts say cases of jurors being punished for failing to serve jury duty are rare, although last month in Michigan, a judge sentenced a woman to a day in jail after she failed to show up.

Some jurisdictions excuse jurors who say the duty poses a financial hardship.

Maureen O'Hara, office manager for jury duty in Chicago's Cook County, said she has been issuing more extensions to allow families time to work on backup plans. O'Hara can empathize because her own office has been slammed by the budget cuts.

Juliet Dickens, a jury manager for the past decade in the Seattle, Washington, municipal courts, said that about one in five people summoned is now citing unemployment as the reason they can't serve. Before the recession hit, potential jurors rarely checked the unemployment box.

"We take their word for it," Dickens said.

Amy Singer, head of the Florida-based Trial Consultants Inc., said the economy's impact on juries may lead to panels that are not made up of one's peers, a basic tenet of the jury system. If people who have economic hardships are excused, Singer said, the panel could be stacked, and that could sway the decision. Trials want to find diverse jury members to ensure fairness, she said.

"Jurors should come from all walks of life, all genders, races, religions, a cross-section of your community," she said. "You should be getting poor people, rich people, sad people, happy people."

Each week, Singer sits in on jury selections across the country. For the past year, she's noticed the gamut of reasons related to the economy: I don't have the money. They are going to foreclose on my home. I can't concentrate.

But in New York, one of the most expensive cities in the U.S., courts are seeing the economy have the opposite effect on jury duty. There, courts spokesman Vincent Homenick says more people seem to be volunteering for jury duty at $40 a day.

"That money isn't going to pay all the bills," he said. "But it's certainly a figure that will help a little bit."

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