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Jury system should change

by Jim Longworth

A Virginia man and his current spouse were sued in civil court by his ex-wife and former business partner. The ex-wife claimed the man had fraudulently conveyed funds to his new wife. The case was extremely complex, involving both corporate and marital law. The jury of the man’s peers consisted of just two men. To no one’s surprise, the skewed jury ignored the facts in evidence and returned a verdict against the man, ordering him to pay his ex-wife $200,000. The judge then had to overturn the jury verdict because it had been rendered on emotion rather than evidence. This is but one example of why systematic jury reform is needed.

Juries originated in England during the reign of Henry II, and were first used to deal with census taking and tax collection. Later the system evolved into a process where jurors helped to settle disputes among neighbors. Those jurors all knew the litigants, and they also had some knowledge of the dispute prior to trial. Such knowledge was considered an asset to both defendant and plaintiff, who willingly put their faith in a true jury of their peers.

In our country, potential jurors are disqualified if they know anything about the litigants or the case. Meanwhile, attorneys have the right to strike a certain number of the jury pool without having to show cause, which results in disqualification of additional jurors who might have been peers of the defendant.

Today there are three basic schools of thought with regards to the American jury system: those who want to preserve the status quo, those who wish to reform the existing system and those who just want to eliminate juries altogether.

US District Judge William Young of Massachusetts is a preservationist. According to Floridabar.org, he is proud of the fact that 90 percent of the jury trials in the world take place in the United States, but he is concerned that Americans are shirking their duty to serve as jurors.

Speaking to a Florida Bar Association luncheon earlier this summer, Young warned, “The American jury system is dying.” I am reminded of the scene in Star Trek VI where Spock tells Kirk that the Klingon planet is in peril and that his arch enemies are in danger of dying. Kirk shouted back, “Let them die!”

Judge Young is well intentioned, but he neglected to tell the Florida group that England did away with juries in civil cases nearly 60 years ago. Thus, preserving a flawed system here in America is nothing of which to be proud. The Brits realized long ago what Judge Young has yet to admit: Citizen jurors cannot competently adjudicate complex civil cases involving dissolution of corporate entities and other multi-layered matters.

Vikram David Amar is a reformist. Writing for Findlaw.com, Amar argues that the jury system is necessary, but doesn’t work properly because of the aforementioned interference by lawyers who abuse the peremptory strike rule to effectively deny qualified jurors. Amar says that attorneys “manipulate demographics and chisel an unprecedented panel out of a representative pool.” However, Amar believes jurors should represent the people, not the parties, and on that point he couldn’t be more wrong. If I am being falsely accused of stealing property from a vindictive plaintiff, I would want jurors who are my age, and who have had similar life experiences to mine. In other words, I want a jury more like the ones back in Old England where knowledge of the case and the litigants was a prerequisite, not a disqualifier.

In any event, there are those of us who would like to see the jury system abolished altogether, at least for civil litigation. Judge Hugh Bownes writing for Piercelaw.edu, makes the argument that we should follow the British model, and utilize juries for criminal cases exclusively. He also reminds us that jurors in this country are never asked to find what the facts are. Bownes says that jurors are only asked to determine what “probably” happened, and that is a matter best left to judges who are experienced in the art of analyzing facts and fashioning a fair remedy.

The Seventh Amendment created the jury system in America, and it must now be modified so as to eliminate juries from complex civil cases.

I, for one, trust judges to do the right thing, and if they slip up, I can simply appeal their ruling. We don’t need unqualified, uneducated jurors trying to decide complicated matters involving parties whom they know nothing about, and facts which they cannot comprehend.

Ignorance is okay when used to second-guess Judge Judy from the comfort of home, but it is not bliss when applied in a real court.

I rest my case.

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” which can be seen Friday mornings at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sunday nights at 10 p.m. on WMYV 48 (cable channel 15).

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