Idaho juror pay becoming patchwork after cap hike

Idaho juror pay becoming patchwork after cap hike
BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Some of Idaho's 44 counties are sweetening their jury-duty pot after the Legislature quintupled a 45-year-old cap on what panelists may be paid for deciding innocence or guilt.

In the process, jury per diem payments across Idaho are becoming a patchwork, with some county officials sticking to the existing $10 rate, set back in 1968, while others hiked it to the new limit, $50. Even within the state's seven judicial districts, discrepancies are emerging.

For instance, in the state's 2nd Judicial District, Nez Perce County this week hiked its daily juror pay to $50, hoping to produce juries that better reflect a cross-section of the accused's peers and reduce a 25 percent no-show rate. Neighboring Idaho County, meanwhile, doubled juror pay to $20 but decided that more could sap cash from other essential services. Latah County, to the north, hiked it to $30.

Officials say navigating the jury-pay "Goldilocks Zone" requires balancing finances and civic responsibility that underpins America's judicial system with concerns that per-diem parsimony may lead to grumbling in the jury box.

"We have all heard people complain, 'Whoa, my 10 bucks, gee thanks,' " said Patty Weeks, the Nez Perce County clerk. "We've heard the stories of the financial hardship this commitment has caused families. We really wanted to support our jury system. We need the whole gamut: From the person who is a part time, minimum-wage worker to the person earning $100,000 a year."

Nez Perce County also boosted its half-day pay to $25, up from $5.

When Idaho last raised the cap on juror per diems in 1968, $10 bought a lot.

Gas was 34 cents a gallon, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. A Snickers cost a dime, milk a dollar a gallon.

But with inflation, a $20 item then would cost about $135 dollars today, something the 2013 Legislature acknowledged when it nearly unanimously boosted the cap.

Even so, lawmakers left it up to counties to make the final call. The money inevitably comes out of local budgets, not state coffers.

That's caused county clerks and commissioners to make some hard choices about whether they can afford raises. Last year, for instance, Nez Perce County, with about 40,000 residents, paid out $10,350 of the $18,000 it had set aside for juror pay.

For the coming year, it's budgeted $35,000 to accommodate its five-fold hike.

Meanwhile, rural Idaho County, with only about 16,000 people, budgeted $7,000 in 2012.

It spent only $2,300, but court clerk Kathy Ackerman points out that a big murder trial is in the works for the coming year that could devour much of the appropriation.

"It's not like we can throw all our money for jury duty, because we're also working to keep our roads safe," Ackerman said, adding her county won't be goaded into matching Nez Perce's decision to boost pay to the maximum.

"The bottom line is, people will find something to be unhappy about," she said. "If it's the fees they get from serving on a jury that are different between counties, I'm sorry, but it's that way it is."

Seth Grigg, an Idaho Association of Counties lobbyist in Boise, said budgets are tight. Like Idaho County, many others may initially be reluctant to bump up juror pay.

Still, as more counties — and more prospective jurors — get wind of raises elsewhere, he predicts others will be under pressure to follow.

"You'll probably see a domino effect," Grigg said.

Ada County, Idaho's largest by population, has an annual budget of $250,000 for juror pay. Larry D. Reiner, the trial court administrator, said officials so far are content to keep the per diem at the 1968 rate of $10.

Yes, he's heard complaints, but says they're infrequent.

"The civic-duty perspective is going to be there regardless, whether it's $10 or $50," Reiner said. "There are a large number of individuals that may have that initial concern. But once they serve, they realize the value of their commitment to public service."

Bonneville County, in eastern Idaho, says it's got similar concerns and is so far holding fees at existing levels, even though officials recognize it's hardly enough for jurors to pay for a modest lunch. Dan Byron, the county's chief deputy clerk, said Bonneville holds many jury trials annually, so boosting per diem pay would likely require additional appropriations.

"It's not just a matter of, 'That would be the right thing to do for the jury,' " he said. "You've got to have the money, too."