Rep. Tim Reisch, R-Howard, speaks on the floor of the South Dakota House of Representatives during the 2023 legislative session at the Capitol in Pierre. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)
It’s illegal to duck jury duty, even if you’re too broke to afford time off work.
A bill meant to address the difficulties that reality can cause for blue-collar jurors died in a state Senate committee this week after passing through the House of Representatives.
The 5-2 vote on House Bill 1098 came after testimony from county managers and commissioners who called it an unfunded mandate.
The day rate for jurors under current law – unchanged since 1999 – is $50, which amounts to $6.25 an hour for a day in court. Jurors empaneled but not selected get $10 a day.
That $50 daily figure used in South Dakota is the highest in the nation. Six states and the federal government pay that rate. But South Dakota does not require employers to compensate employees for jury duty, as eight states and the District of Columbia do.
A pitch to switch South Dakota’s juror pay rate to $80 a day for the first five days and $120 a day for any additional days came from Rep. Tim Reisch, R-Howard. HB 1098 would also hike the payments for unselected jurors to $50 a day.
The issue, Reisch said, is that potential jurors have to worry about paying their electric bill in order to fulfill their civic obligation. In practice, he said, jurors claim financial hardship and often wind up struck from the jury pool.
“They make great jurors,” said Reisch, who formerly served as Department of Corrections secretary and as Miner County sheriff. “But doggone it, if you’ve got to clock out of your $20 an hour job and still take your kids to daycare for $4 an hour, then get paid $6.25 an hour, there’s something wrong with that.”
As a result, he said, juries often wind up packed with senior citizens, including some who look at service as extra income, and well-paid citizens whose employers cover the cost of their time away.
That has implications for justice, according to Pat Pardy, a circuit court judge who testified as an individual to support the bill. Citizens have a constitutional right to a trial by a jury of their peers, but Pardy said many judges will exercise discretion when jurors ask to be excused for financial hardship.
The socioeconomic backgrounds of the resulting juries might not reflect the background of a defendant or their community.
“You start releasing them, and it starts creating potential constitutional issues with the jury panel,” Pardy said.
Also backing the measure was Mark Barnett, a current employee of Attorney General Marty Jackley, as well as a former attorney general and former judge.
County budget concerns
One after the other, the bill’s opponents said they had no qualms with the idea of paying jurors more and that they understood the hardship that jury duty can represent. What the opponents didn’t like was another budget obligation for counties.
Hughes County Manager Lori Jacobson told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the bill would make South Dakota’s juror pay rate more than double the nationwide average.
Every penny of the increase would come from county coffers, she said.
“Let us not forget that it is the counties who are bearing the brunt of this looming economic crisis. It is not the state of South Dakota who is actually incurring the cost,” Jacobson said. “As the bill is written, it will be another unfunded mandate placed upon the counties.”
I'm very concerned that we as legislators continue to legislate, but do not appropriate.
– Sen. Randy Deibert, R-Spearfish
The proposal would cost Hughes County $20,000 to $40,000 a year, she said. Pennington County Commissioner Gary Drewes told the committee it would cost his county $180,000-$200,000.
“These dollars, again, would come from our property taxpayers,” Drewes said.
Property taxes are the main revenue source for county operations, Jacobson and Drewes reminded lawmakers.
Sen. Randy Deibert, R-Spearfish, asked the committee which services might wind up cut if the bill passes.
“Do we cut patrol hours? Do we not move snow? What do we cut to pay for this?” Deibert said. “I’m very concerned that we as legislators continue to legislate, but do not appropriate. This is another burden for counties, and I ask you to stop this bill.”
Reform might need governor’s support
Sen. Helene Duhamel, R-Rapid City, suggested a summer study to ferret out which state mandates for counties are unfunded and potentially worthy of compensatory payments from the state general fund.
Until something like that happens, she said, she can’t support proposals like increased juror pay.
“I think counties are to the point where they’re on their knees and they need help,” Duhamel said. “And we can’t put any more on counties.”
Duhamel also questioned why counties pick up the tab in the first place. The answer is historical precedent, said Greg Sattizahn of the Unified Judicial System, who testified in support of the measure.
Before 1972, counties were responsible for court operations. The Unified Judicial System created the current state and local court structure. The state pays judges and clerks of court and maintains a statewide computer system, while counties pay for prosecution and court-appointed defense, jails, juries and other costs.
“Historically, this has always been a county expense in South Dakota,” Sattizahn said. “When you think of it, these cases are brought and captured in the county where they’re from, and the jurors are selected from that county. So it’s really just how it’s been.”
After the vote, Reisch told South Dakota Searchlight that in order to secure state funding for something like juror payments, he’d need the support of Gov. Kristi Noem – something he didn’t have this year for his bill as written.
“We can pass bills that cost money as legislators, but with something like this, you’d want to get the governor involved,” Reisch said.
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