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Sitting in judgment

By Robert J. Grey Jr.
President, American Bar Association

Robert J. Grey Jr.
Grey

Recently, our televisions and newspapers have been flooded by high-profile trials. While coverage of these trials often is sensational, the trials themselves reveal the fundamental and profound strength of our American jury system. Despite the media frenzy that surrounds them, our jury system withstands this unprecedented level of scrutiny, rising above the fray to deliver fair and impartial verdicts.

Equally important, the American jury system, together with voting, forms the bedrock of our democratic society. Its health is essential to our continuing quest for equality and justice, both at home and abroad. For centuries, American citizens have answered the call to jury service, and jury participation has changed very little in the last 200 years. Troubling, however, are reports that courts across the country are recording declining response rates to jury summonses. A public opinion poll commissioned by the American Bar Association shows that only 53 percent of Americans surveyed felt they were treated well by the courts. Not withstanding these issues, Americans overwhelmingly (75 percent) prefer to have their cases tried by a jury rather than a judge. To maintain the integrity of our legal system and our way of life, we must bolster jury trials, a core principle of American democracy.

This imperative is not lost on Americans. The increasing demands on our daily lives do nothing to diminish appreciation for our jury system. This same public opinion poll shows that 75 percent of those polled do not consider jury service a burden to be avoided, and 84 percent feel it is an important civic duty that should be met even if inconvenient. These statistics are encouraging because they show Americans remain committed to this democratic institution.

Unfortunately, the demands on citizens’ lives may be a complicating factor in discouraging people from jury service in ways that could not have been anticipated. In an age of mass media, celebrity justice, hectic professional and personal schedules and new, complex legal issues, Americans want their privacy, their time and their intelligence respected. We in the legal profession owe it to our fellow citizens to modernize the institution of jury trials so that our legal system will continue to be responsive to the demands of the 21st century.

When I became president of the American Bar Association, I formed the American Jury Project to focus on precisely this issue. After studying the jury system and hearing from a wide range of stakeholders from all across the country, the American Jury Project developed new “Principles for Juries and Jury Trials,” which were adopted by the ABA House of Delegates on Feb. 14 at our Midyear Meeting.

These principles are designed to improve jurors’ pre- through post-trial experiences. But just adopting these principles is not enough; we in the legal profession must work together to implement these principles, by encouraging our state courts and bar associations to use them as a tool for positive change.

The new ABA jury principles recommend a number of steps that make it easier for Americans to serve. They call on courts to perform sensitive voir dire in chambers to protect juror privacy, to take measures to ensure that jurors’ time is used efficiently, to offer higher compensation for jury service, and to encourage greater juror participation by permitting them to take notes and providing them with more opportunities to discuss cases together.

Implementing these principles will reinforce Americans’ strong predisposition to jury trials, strengthening one of our most fundamental democratic institutions. I urge you to examine these new principles at abanet.org/juryprojectstandards/principles.pdf and help put them into practice.

As members of the legal profession, we must be the advocates for these principles, and when we do, our fellow citizens will be the beneficiaries. By fortifying the foundation of our democracy, we will enable our great nation to remain a beacon of light in the world, a true champion of equality, justice and democracy at home and abroad.

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