In summary

California courts give low-income jurors $15 per day. As a result, people with financial hardships are excused, leading to juries that often fail to reflect local demographics. A bill on the governor’s desk would expand a San Francisco pilot program and up the rate to $100 in four new counties.

Guest Commentary written by

Newton Lam

Newton Lam

Newton Lam is a retired former deputy public defender, court commissioner and San Francisco Superior Court judge.

Trial by a jury of one’s peers is at the heart of our Constitution and our justice system. And yet, California fails to meet this requirement in courtrooms across the state. This is because our courts only compensate jurors $15 a day starting their second day of service, and they haven’t increased this amount in over 20 years. 

In my extensive legal career as a deputy public defender and a San Francisco Superior Court judge, I was in the courtroom nearly every day. I witnessed firsthand the very real effects of our state’s meager compensation for jurors. All too often, higher-income jurors, who are often white, decide the fate of someone whose life circumstances are dramatically different from their own.

When I was a public defender and trial judge, I remember seeing prospective jurors walk in and think it was like all of San Francisco had walked into the courtroom – an exhilarating mix of all the city’s neighborhoods. Unfortunately, after people with legitimate hardships were excused, the resulting jury was a selective sliver of city residents.  

The good news is that California is very close to dramatically improving jury diversity, thanks to pending legislation. Assembly Bill 881, authored by San Francisco Assemblyman Phil Ting, overwhelmingly passed both houses of the state Legislature and now sits on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk, waiting for his signature. If Newsom signs the bill, it will expand a program to raise juror pay for low-income jurors from $15 per day to $100 per day in San Francisco and four additional counties, rural and urban areas among them. The Judicial Council, which oversees the state’s court system, would choose the counties.

San Francisco piloted a similar initiative, which has shown remarkable results. Reports indicate the program has effectively reduced socioeconomic and racial disparities in juries and has strengthened participants’ trust in the legal system. I believe AB 881 will do the same. Like the San Francisco version, this bill has broad support statewide from public defenders and prosecutors alike. 

Raising juror pay is long overdue. California’s jury pay is low compared to other states, despite our high cost of living. Other states are raising jury pay as well, with six states taking action this year alone. California hasn’t raised juror pay since the year 2000.

Learn more about legislators mentioned in this story

Phil Ting

Phil Ting

State Assembly, District 19 (San Francisco)

Phil Ting

State Assembly, District 19 (San Francisco)

How he voted 2021-2022
Liberal Conservative
District 19 Demographics

Voter Registration

Dem 60%
GOP 9%
No party 26%
Campaign Contributions

Asm. Phil Ting has taken at least $3.7 million from the Labor sector since he was elected to the legislature. That represents 33% of his total campaign contributions.

While a legislative analysis suggest the proposal could cost up to $9 million each year, the bill’s co-sponsors estimate the amount would be no more than $3 million annually, and it will only be implemented if the state appropriates funding for it. With fewer jurors being dismissed based on financial hardship, it will also take less time to secure enough jurors to start a trial, which will in turn reduce court expenses by an estimated $2.3 million.  

It’s true that Legislators are in belt-tightening mode right now when it comes to the state’s budget. But $3 million is a modest sum compared to most state expenditures. And the benefits far outweigh the cost. This program will allow people who otherwise couldn’t participate in this sacred civic duty to do so – people like my parents, whose jobs as a seamstress and grocer in Chinatown simply wouldn’t allow for them to take time off to be jurors.  

Public safety is improved when Californians trust that our justice system is meeting the needs of everyone in the courtroom. AB 881 benefits everyone impacted by our justice system.  

We want to hear from you

Want to submit a guest commentary or reaction to an article we wrote? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact CalMatters with any commentary questions: