Pa. bill would ease burden on jury members who work

| Monday, April 9, 2012

Steven Barth waited in the Allegheny County Courthouse, anxiously checking his iPhone and worrying about how much money he was losing.

The owner and sole employee of a Peppridge Farm distributorship, Barth, 50, of South Park had to close his business for the day to answer a summons to jury duty. If he's selected to serve, he will have to miss even more time.

"It's killing me," Barth said. "I'm a one-man band. I don't take vacations for this reason."

A bill introduced by state Rep. Rob Matzie, D-Beaver County, aims to ease the financial burden on people like Barth when they're called for jury duty. It would give a tax credit to self-employed people based on their monthly income during the previous year. The legislation also would require employers to pay their employees' regular wage when they're ordered to report, and it would give the employers a tax credit worth the same amount.

That would be a huge jump over the compensation of $9 a day for the first three days and $25 a day after that. Matzie wants to more than triple jurors' mileage reimbursement as well: from 17 cents a mile to the federal reimbursement rate, which the Internal Revenue Service set at 55 cents a mile.

The bill is awaiting consideration in the state House Judiciary Committee.

"It is important that Pennsylvania law supports citizens in the performance of their civic duty to serve on a jury if summoned," Matzie said. "My bill would ensure that proper compensation is provided to those citizens."

It could cost state government tens of millions of dollars. Workers in Pennsylvania make an average of about $29,600 a year, according to the census. With about 250 workdays a year, that works out to $118 or so a day.

Jurors served a total of 272,840 days in 2010, according to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts. Under Matzie's bill, with the state's average daily pay, that's more than $32 million in tax credits.

The state paid $5.3 million in juror fees in 2010, the courts administrative office said. The projected cost is more than the annual budget for Superior Court, Pennsylvania's primary appellate court.

"It will cut down on excuses," said lawyer Patrick Thomassey, who has been practicing for 38 years and supports the bill.

Many jurors want to serve, but they tell lawyers that it would create too much of a financial hardship. "There are all these personal issues. I think it's the right thing to do," Thomassey said.

A companion bill from Matzie exempts parents from jury duty if they have to watch their children, as well as primary caregivers of elderly and disabled family members.

"I believe that would alleviate some of the issues that prospective jurors have," said Dan Konieczka, a partner in the Downtown law firm DeLuca, Ricciuti & Konieczka and a former Allegheny County prosecutor. "There are a number of jurors that don't make a whole lot, and to lose a day — in most cases, more than one day — it can be economically a problem with them."

Some workers, including Chrissy McNally, 28, of Cheswick, receive their regular wage when they're called to jury duty. While waiting at the courthouse to hear if she had been selected to serve on a jury, she said she supports Matzie's bill.

"You don't have the option to go or not if they call you," McNally said.

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