January 11, 2001
Jury duty has become such a burden in many states that most people called for service fail to show up. A recent Dallas Morning News survey showed that some 80 percent of Dallas County residents summoned for jury duty don't show up. The resulting shortage of some demographic groups is so severe that local jury pools violate constitutional standards for fairness.
Five years ago, Arizona courts reformed the jury system, guided by the idea that jurors -- not lawyers or judges -- are the most important people in the courtroom. Now, legal scholars and judicial authorities in a score of other states -- including Texas -- are urging similar programs.
Arizona is addressing problems that influence public attitudes toward jury service. For instance,
- Waiting time before being assigned to a case is shorter, and waiting rooms are more comfortable.
- Jurors are allowed to take notes, can submit questions in writing, and are allowed to discuss the case as a group during breaks in the trial.
- Lawyers must make points more quickly and avoid repetitive questioning -- a pet peeve of jurors -- under time restraints imposed at the discretion of judges.
- In some instances, trials can be reopened to add evidence or testimony.
Also, Arizona requires the use of words the average person can understand, especially when judges instruct, or "charge," a jury. Court officials even hired a language expert to help craft more straightforward terminology.
By contrast, judges elsewhere, especially in Texas, still reel off instructions approved decades ago by appellate courts. The scripts are often dense, but judges stick to them for fear of being reversed by higher courts.
Source: Mark Curriden, "A model for reform," Dallas Morning News, January 7, 2001.
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