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The Free Market
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August 1999
Volume 17, Number 8

Abolish Jury Duty
Dominick T. Armentano

I reside in Indian River County, Florida, where jury duty is mandated by statute, as in most states. This means that the courts in the county are authorized to "summon" specific individuals for service in civil and criminal proceedings as jurors. A failure to respond to the jury duty summons will be considered a "contempt of court," and a fine not to exceed $100 can be imposed.

Trial by jury is guaranteed in the US Constitution but that doesn't mean that serving on a jury is some unique civic responsibility as courts would have you believe. Indeed, forcing individuals to appear for jury duty selection flies in the face of other constitutional guarantees, such as the prohibition on involuntary servitude. There are more efficient and more ethical ways to obtain adjudication services.

The most obvious alternative to government-mandated service is to use a free labor market. The government should advertise and recruit appropriate individuals and pay competitive wages. (When I proposed this to a local attorney he looked at me like I was from another planet. Yet, this same attorney thinks nothing of hiring his own paralegal help or advertising in the newspaper to sell his own services.)

Ironically, while jurors are currently commandeered, the courtrooms where they serve are cleaned, painted, and maintained by hired help. Policemen perform all sorts of "civic duties," but they are not drafted: they are carefully recruited and paid. Indeed, all other tasks in a free society are accomplished by individuals who are hired and paid appropriate compensation. The system can work for jurors, too.

Hiring jurors has all sorts of "efficiency" advantages. First, laborers are happier and more productive if they choose their own line of work and if they are paid fees commensurate with the services that they render. Second, individuals with appropriate aptitudes can be recruited to help decide technically difficult cases; this must make for better "judging." Third, random selection recruitment (in Indian River County it's based on motor vehicle licenses!) can be abandoned in favor of voluntary self-selection, a vastly more efficient recruitment device. (To understand the gross inefficiency of the current system, one hundred-twenty individuals in Indian River recently had their lives disrupted for four days to select seven jurors for a trial.) Finally, so-called juror shortages are eliminated since the courts tap a more receptive labor pool and pay competitive wages for service.

Two common objections to hiring jurors is that it's too "expensive" and the state can "buy" the verdict that it wants. The second objection easily fails since jurors are already compensated (although not adequately) under the current system. And whether the newer system is "expensive" depends upon how we calculate costs. In the current system, costs are simply shifted from government to the unlucky jurors; individuals are taken away from jobs with substantial market value to serve as jurors. In a free market this problem is eliminated since attracting potential jurors would require that they be paid their opportunity cost.

But even more important than economics, a free-market juror hiring system is more consistent with common-sense notions of liberty and justice for jurors. After all, potential jurors are innocent of all crime; yet, ironically, they are the ones deprived of their liberty and ordered to sit in judgment of those charged with real crimes! They are also subject to rigorous and personal pre-trial questioning (the voir dire) by attorneys during the selection process; defendants, on the other hand, can constitutionally remain silent during the entire court proceeding. Yet there is no excuse for this unethical treatment of innocents when an efficient and humane alternative exists.

Jury duty should be abolished and government courts should be required to rediscover the free market in jury services.

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Dominick T. Armentano is professor emeritus in economics at the University of Hartford and the author of Antitrust: The Case for Repeal (Auburn, Ala.: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 1999).

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