If you spend some time looking at the statistics, you will see the number of jury trials is swiftly declining. Many states and organizations have recognized the decline, voicing concerns about the resulting impact on the judicial system, the public and lawyers. The Florida Bar created a special taskforce, the Special Committee to Study the Decline in Jury Trials (“Committee”), to research and analyze the trend, determine the root cause of the decline and recommend a course of action to the Florida Board of Governors to minimize the impact of this decline. The Committee issued its final report in December 2011. The full report is available at floridabar.org by clicking “About the Bar,” followed by “Committees” and then “Special.”
The Committee reviewed, among other published studies, Professor Marc Galanter’s article The Vanishing Trial: An Examination of Trials and Related Matters in Federal and State Courts (1 J. Empirical Legal Studies 459 (2004)). When you view the statistics, the decline is apparent, and staggering. For example, in 1962, 11.5% of 50,320 civil federal court dispositions were by trial. In 2002, there were only 1.8% dispositions by trial, out of 258,876. In Florida civil cases, 1.6% of total civil cases (155,407) were resolved by jury in 1986. By 2009, the percentage reduced to .2%, while the number of civil cases increased to 401,463.
According to the Committee, there are several reasons why jury trials suffered declines. For civil cases, the rise of alternative dispute resolution mechanisms contributed markedly. The expense of trials is always another common deterrent. Another factor is the time it takes to bring a case to trial. Despite the reduction in number, it was noted that jury trials have become more complex -- longer and more complicated.
The declines have not been without negative impacts. With fewer jury trials, fewer people participate in the judicial system as jurors. Jury service helps educate the public about the justice system. It is a simple way for the average citizen to play a role in governmental decision making. If the nearly all disputes are resolved privately, via mediation or arbitration, rather than in an open courtroom, the public’s perception of the justice system will become further skewed.
The decline in jury trials also contributes to reduced funding to the court system, as the decline itself may be viewed as a reason to fund less. This contributes to a never ending cycle of funding and less independence of the judiciary.
One of the greatest impacts, however, is the effect on new lawyers. A lawyer learns best by first-hand practice. With less opportunity to conduct a trial, lawyers must look to other training which will always be less adequate than the real thing. The new lawyer ends up feeling uncomfortable and unsure regarding his or her skills. When the opportunity finally arises, the lawyer may shy away from the experience because he or she simply does not know how to try a case.
The Committee recommended several measures, including full funding of the courts. To reduce the impact, the Committee also suggested training and mentoring programs for young lawyers, such as certified legal intern programs or State Attorney/ Public Defender internships. The Committee further recommended techniques to the bench to more efficiently administer judicial duties, with less cost to litigants, such as streamlining discovery and encouraging the use of expedited jury trials.
DRI created the Jury Preservation Task Force to examine this federal and state vanishing jury trial phenomenon and report on its findings, which will be published in a future edition of For the Defense.