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Thursday, December 29, 2005

Texas jurors to get a pay increase but only after one day of service

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Texas jurors to get 1st raise in 50 years
Pay stays at $6 for first day but rises to $40 for every additional day

By MICHAEL GRABELL and ROBERT THARP / The Dallas Morning News

Starting next week, Texas jurors will get a raise.

For their first day of service, jurors will continue to receive $6. But for
every additional day, jurors will receive $40 a day, the first increase in
more than 50 years.

Texas currently has the lowest jury pay in the country.

"Jurors simply can't make it in downtown Dallas on $6," family court Judge
Marilea Lewis said. "That simply isn't enough when you're talking about
child care and income that's lost while you're sitting on a jury."

Disappointed by weak turnout – about 20 percent of those summoned in Dallas
County – the Legislature passed a bill this year to raise the rate for all
courts, whether the juror is called for a death penalty trial or a personal
injury case.

A 2000 study by The Dallas Morning News and Southern Methodist University
found that Hispanics, young adults and low-income people couldn't afford to
miss work for jury duty.

As a result, those groups were under-represented on Dallas County juries.

"Jury duty should be a public duty and a public service and not a public
sacrifice," said Domingo Garcia, a Dallas attorney who filed a similar bill
as a state representative in 2001.

"To people who live paycheck to paycheck, people in the service industry or
who work in construction jobs, it is really a sacrifice to serve on a jury.

"That's the difference between paying the rent or buying the groceries."

Parking agencies offer discounts for jurors, and Dallas Area Rapid Transit
offers free transportation on the first day. But the cost of parking,
transportation, missed work and child care can make jury duty expensive.

State civil court Judge Jay Patterson said he declared a mistrial this month
when two people picked for the jury on a business dispute case said that
serving would create a hardship for them.

"The goal is to have people who are in the court system to have confidence
that they're going to be fairly treated and have a jury of their peers," he

The increase will be paid for by a new $4 fee for anyone convicted of a
crime other than a parking or pedestrian violation.

Rob Walters, a partner with the law firm Vinson & Elkins, said that he's
hopeful about the pay hike but that it would take time to determine whether
it improves attendance. The law firm took up the cause and helped draft the
legislation after becoming aware of the problem courts were having.

When Texas started paying jurors in 1866, the pay was intended to be the
equivalent of a day's wage. But the pay hasn't kept up with the cost of

"Over time, it's gone from what it's intended to be to something that
doesn't even pay for lunch or parking," Mr. Walters said.

But economics isn't the only reason Dallas residents don't show up for jury
duty. About 40 percent of the notices can't be delivered because of outdated
address records.

Since September, the county has been using a new, more accurate list of
potential jurors. But Helen Walker, a Dallas County jury services
coordinator, said jury summonses are still returned by the box load every

"We're hopeful," she said. "So far, as of today, it still hasn't happened."

Martin Garza, president of the Dallas Hispanic Bar Association, said that
raising pay could increase historically low Hispanic turnout, but he said
more needs to be done to educate the community.

"It's a level of distrust about the legal system," said Mr. Garza, a real
estate attorney at Hughes & Luce. "I think a lot of it is making sure we
have Hispanic jurors who understand how the system works and understand that
it's a civic duty to show up."
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