Serving on a jury may be a civic duty, but for many potential jurors screened for the retrial of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, it's also a financial nightmare, and experts say it's becoming increasingly harder to find jurors able to sacrifice their salaries for justice.
U.S. District Judge James Zagel, who's presiding over the Blagojevich trial, excused almost all of the jurors who cited some kind of financial difficulty during questioning. Among them were a woman who insisted jury duty would kill her fledgling pet-sitting business, a medical transport company owner struggling to keep her sons -- both felons -- employed, and several people who recently got new jobs after being unemployed for months.
As the country's economic crisis drags on, experts said it's become more difficult for people to take the time away from their jobs even a few days, let alone the weeks that the Blagojevich trial is expected to take. And some are concerned the justice system could be affected if juries are made up only of people who can afford the financial burden of jury duty.
"The trend has significantly spiked, that's for sure," said Christopher Keleher, a lawyer with the Chicago-based firm Querrey and Harrow who has written extensively about jurors.
Blagojevich faces 20 charges, including that he tried to sell or trade President Barack Obama's old U.S. Senate seat in exchange for campaign cash or a top job. His first trial ended with a hung jury.
The retrial is not expected to last as long as the first trial, which spanned 2 1/2 months, in part because prosecutors have streamlined their case, but still could last a month or more.
Jurors in the Northern District of Illinois are paid $40 a day for their service and 48 cents per mile for travel. Employers aren't required to pay workers for jury duty, and potential jurors in the Blagojevich trial said their bosses would pay them for only two days, two weeks or not at all.
Then there were the small-business owners with few or no employees to keep the company going and money flowing in while they were away. Such was the story for the pet-sitter and medical transport company owner, both of whom Zagel excused.
In asking to be let go, the transport company owner wrote to Zagel in a pre-trial questionnaire that she needs to keep her business afloat so that her two sons with criminal histories will always have a place to work, a reason Zagel called "heartrending."
"This is arguably a tough one," he said. "This is a business that she wants to keep alive."
Also excused was a woman who said she'd lose her house if she had to go for weeks without pay, an office manager going through a bankruptcy and a man whose first day of work after 16 months of being unemployed was the day he reported for jury duty.
Zagel was sympathetic with most but unmoved by potential jurors who made it sound as if jury duty would be an inconvenience rather than a hardship, including the man whose boss wrote that his department didn't want to be a person down during an upcoming trip.
"This particular request holds no weight," Zagel said of the boss' letter.
Zagel asked jurors who cited financial hardship to submit documentation of their difficulties or their employers' jury policy, a move that makes sense, Keleher said.
"Simply invoking financial hardship is not enough, you've really got to show," Keleher said. "A court is right to be skeptical. Judge Zagel is right to be skeptical."
On the other end of the spectrum are jurors willing and able to juggle their work lives with jury duty.
"I've seen cases where a juror says, `Yeah, I'll work from 5:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.," said litigation consultant Alan Tuerkheimer. "I wouldn't say that's the norm, because it really is a hardship."
Stephen Wlodek, who served on the first Blagojevich trial jury, said it was hard to balance his work life with jury duty but "my employer was tremendous. I tried to repay it by doing as much as I could at night."
Wlodek said his fellow jurors teased him for having his laptop in the jury room, and his coworkers teased that they could always tell when he was on a break from the trial because they got a flurry of emails from him.
Keleher said if the trend with jurors continues it could have a ripple effect across the justice system as more juries are made up solely of people who can afford the burden of jury duty.
"This is the type of issue that ... will impact the makeup of the jury, in turn that will impact jury verdicts," he said.
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