In Hennepin and Ramsey counties, jury duty often comes at a price.
For nearly a decade, jurors have received $10 a day for parking, bus fare or lunch in exchange for spending long hours in a courtroom. The per-diem may cover expenses in smaller counties, but jurors in urban areas, where parking and transportation are pricier, are slapped with a financial hardship beyond lost wages for doing their civic duty.
Court advocates hope to see that addressed by this year’s Legislature. Gov. Mark Dayton’s budget proposal supports bumping per-diems to $20 a day. His budget plan also would fund several dozen more public defenders to process high caseloads and provide the first significant salary increase for district judges and court employees since 2001. Jurors also would get a boost in mileage reimbursement from 26 cents to the current federal rate of 57.5 cents.
“Look at the larger picture,” said Goodhue County District Judge Kevin Mark, president of the Minnesota District Judges Association. “The infrastructure of the judicial branch is the people working within it. If we don’t bring it along and maintain it, we can have the same deficiencies as any infrastructure. Things can fall apart.”
This year’s push to raise judicial and staff salaries and jury per-diems comes after a long stretch of state budget deficits and a recession that forced salary freezes and expense and service reductions.
If this portion of the governor’s budget stays intact, district judges would receive 5 percent annual raises the next two years, bringing their salary to $152,496. The current salary ranks 31st nationally compared with other trial judges, according to a 2013 study by Macalester College economics Prof. Karine Moe that was requested by the state judicial branch to prepare its 2015 budget request.
“Through a decade of small or zero increases, inflation eroded the value of judicial salaries quite substantially,” she said.
The state House and Senate released their overall budget targets this week, which signal how much each committee chair can potentially spend on its specific budget. The total increase requested for judges’ salaries, jurors’ per-diems and mileage reimbursement over the next two years would be approximately $12 million.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie S. Gildea said the per-diem raise for jurors would signal the importance of their work, and a higher salary for judges and staff would help keep the best and brightest working for the justice system, she said.
Pay ‘out of whack’
In early 2000, Mark said he decided not to apply for a judgeship because it would have been too much of a financial hit to leave private practice. A few years later, he reconsidered after the Legislature approved a 6.5 percent increase in judge’s salaries.
The impact of stagnant judge salaries recently played out in the state’s northwestern Ninth Judicial District. The district’s chief judge talked to three private attorneys about a judicial opening, but all declined for compensation reasons. Only three attorneys applied for the post in a district made up of 17 counties.
“Some county prosecutors are making more money than the judges they have cases in front of,” Mark said. “That’s out of whack.”
Mark was one of 32 people who applied for the judgeship he eventually was appointed to in 2002 by then-Gov. Jesse Ventura. He worries that a shrinking applicant pool decreases the chance of keeping a diverse bench with a mix of attorneys from private and public practice and a variety of legal specialties.
“From a political point, if you start whining about making over $100,000, you don’t fare well,” he said. “We don’t want to be in the limelight over this. If you are in it for the money, you won’t be a good judge. At least let’s make it practical to leave practice and go into the judiciary.”
Mark is among those supporting more compensation for jurors. On average per year, the state pays 95,300 days’ worth of per-diems and reimburses jurors for more than 2.2 million miles traveled. In 2013, Hennepin County had 24,038 people report for jury duty.
“We do have juror comment cards, and juror pay and parking is almost always written in on the additional comment portion, that the pay should be higher and that we should be providing them a parking facility,” said Brandy Martin, Hennepin County’s court operations supervisor for the jury office.
Jury per-diems were as high as $30 in 2002, so Hennepin County Chief Judge Pete Cahill said it was pretty embarrassing when they dropped to $10 a few years later. Jurors can’t be spending time during a trial thinking about what a financial burden it is, he said.
“We expect a lot of jurors, so you try and minimize the impact on their lives,” he said.
Response to the juror and judge compensation proposal has been favorable at the Legislature, Mark said. It was presented to Dayton long before this year’s budget surplus became clear, “so this session is a good year to play catch-up,” he said.
Gildea, who has been lobbying at the Legislature, is grateful for the governor’s support and has confidence that funding for the judicial system will be handled as a bipartisan issue.
“Legislators have a difficult job,” she said. “We are working hard to prove to funders and the people of Minnesota that we are good stewards of money.”