Compensation for jury service at federal courts around the country had languished 28 years without an increase, starting at a $40 daily rate that jurors in the nation’s capital recently called “abysmal,” below the federal minimum wage and a hardship.
In that same period since 1990, annual salaries for members of Congress have rocketed 80 percent, climbing to $174,000 a year from $96,600 before inflation.
But lawmakers on Friday got around to giving a pay raise to the more than 50,000 other Americans who serve as federal jurors each year, adding the hike as part of the $1.3 trillion spending bill.
Congress increased the pay by $10 a day — an amount that brings jurors closer to the federal minimum-wage rate of $58 a day.
“Court officials routinely tell us how much they value our service,” said juror Elliott Negin, who led a group of 24 federal grand jurors in Washington that formally petitioned House and Senate Judiciary Committee leaders for a pay boost Nov. 27. “If the federal government truly valued our service, it wouldn’t pay us poverty-level wages.”
The jury pay increase was tucked in one paragraph of the 2,232-page bill President Trump signed Friday to avert a government shutdown.
It remained unclear this week who was responsible for including the increase, which grants that 45 days after enactment, jurors will be paid $50 a day when they start service and $60 a day after completing 45 days of service — up from the $50 they now get at that mark.
On March 19, a bipartisan group of 11 House members, led by Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D. C.) with retiring Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) called for the hike in a letter to the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees judiciary spending, chaired by Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.).
“While juror compensation was never meant to serve as a substitute for a salary and obviously does not, raising the daily rate of juror compensation to $50 per day would provide some small relief for the sacrifices made by jurors,” the lawmakers said in the letter.
Juror pay is set by statute and funded by Congress. The federal judiciary since 2016 has asked for the increase, saying higher pay would lead to fewer jurors seeking excuses from service, improving the efficiency of and empaneling more representative juries.
D.C. jurors who signed the petition seeking more money had said their service has caused them to work nights and weekends, damaged their chances for a raise or promotion, and affected their housing benefits and subsidies in negative ways.
Raskin, Gowdy and Norton said in a statement after the bill with the hike became law: “We’re happy that the omnibus included a modest increase in daily pay for federal jurors, who play an indispensable role in our judicial process. We will continue to work together to ensure that federal jurors are fairly compensated while they’re fulfilling this essential civic duty.”
Negin, who is a senior writer at the Washington office of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a science advocacy organization headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., organized two dozen of the federal grand jurors now serving at the U.S. district courthouse in Washington.
The jurors play a key role in charging criminal defendants in the same federal courthouse — but not in the same matters — where special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is investigating Russian influence in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The petition signers did not discuss what they are working on but stated that they served on grand juries empaneled in November 2016, meaning they would have been seated before Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein announced Mueller’s appointment in May.
Negin called it “good news” that Congress recognized that federal grand jurors are underpaid, but observed that the extra $10 a day does not keep up with inflation or even with how much Congress has increased its own pay over that time.
“If Congress paid grand jurors 80 percent more than what it paid them in 1990, grand jurors would get $72 a day for the first 45 days and $90 a day thereafter,” Negin said. “So it’s a good first step, but when jurors are stuck in federal grand jury twice a week for a year and a half, they should be paid more for their service.”
A $50-a-day rate set in January 1990 has the buying power of about $97 today, according to consumer price index calculations.
By comparison, a person paid the $12.50 an hour minimum wage in the nation’s capital would earn $100 for an eight-hour day, although jurors can work shorter hours.
About 54,000 people served on federal juries in 2016, including about 100 on six federal grand juries in the District, according to U.S. court statistics. Each grand jury may include 16 to 23 members and ordinarily lasts 18 months. Grand jurors typically meet about two days a week over 18 months, although some grand juries called for special purposes could meet less or more depending on prosecutors’ needs.
The federal rate applies to regular jurors — who on average serve three to six days during a two-week term on juries of six to 12 people and decide public civil or criminal trials, according to the D.C. court — and to grand jurors, who meet in secret and work with prosecutors to decide whether to indict criminal defendants.
Federal courts pay all jurors $40 per day plus $7 for travel expenses, except for federal employees, who are paid their regular salary. Private employers may pay workers for jury service but are not required to, and about 40 percent do not, according to the U.S. courts.
According to a March 2017 survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 38 percent of workers reported that they did not receive paid jury duty leave. The top half of income earners were twice as likely to get leave as the lower half.