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TCL > May 1998 Issue > Jury Reform: A Brief Overview

May 1998       Vol. 27, No. 5       Page  23

Jury Reform: A Brief Overview

Some of the procedures and rules applicable to jury trials in Colorado are out of date and out of line according to the Colorado Supreme Court. We, as a society, entrust important decisions to juries; we should therefore attempt to assure that we have representative pools of qualified jurors ready to serve, that the information upon which the jurors are making their decisions is clear and understandable, and that the jurors' time at the courthouse is used respectfully and efficiently.

If any one of us enrolled in a high school or college course, we would expect to be able to take notes, to ask questions, and to know the subject matter of the final examination at the beginning of the course. Decisions made by juries are more important to the parties to the case and to the operation of the justice system than an academic course. Certainly, jurors deserve no less consideration than students.

The Colorado Supreme Court is, therefore, proposing a series of reforms designed to address some of these problems. The Court began this process in January 1996 by appointing a diverse committee of judges, attorneys, ex-jurors, and other members of the public to consider various proposals. That committee's report was adopted in principle by the Court in February 1997. The Court then appointed an implementation committee charged with the task of putting the recommendations into concrete proposals for rules changes, statutory revisions, and other procedural changes to the system.

The Court has now promulgated specific implementation measures, including proposed changes to the Civil and Criminal Rules of Procedure. The changes all reflect a shift in thinking, to a model that directly takes jurors' interests into account in the planning and presentation of a jury trial. The pool of names available for jury summons will be updated and cross-referenced, and jurors who have served in the two immediately preceding years will generally not have to serve. Hopefully, by those two processes, a larger pool of individuals will be called for jury duty, and individuals who feel as if they are always called will get a break.

Judges and attorneys are directed to resolve as many issues as possible regarding the trial before the jurors ever arrive at the courthouse. Once the jurors do arrive, they will be given information about their duties as jurors and about the case to which they are being assigned so that they will know what the case is about and what is being asked of them. The jury commissioner may even be able to excuse some jurors who cannot serve on the case without the need of waiting a full day or longer to talk with the judge and attorneys. During the juror examination process, jurors will not need to disclose personal locating information about their home or business address in open court.

When the trial starts, the jurors will be permitted to take notes; they will have juror notebooks that include basic information about the courthouse and the court personnel, instructions of law, and copies of exhibits in the case highlighted as relevant. In civil cases and in a pilot project on criminal cases, jurors will be able to pose questions to witnesses by submitting the question in writing to the judge who will then ask it, if appropriate. In another pilot project, jurors in civil cases will be permitted to discuss the case prior to conclusion of the evidence and commencement of deliberations, so long as all jurors are present in the jury room when such discussions occur. Both pilot projects are designed to measure whether the change advances the jurors' comprehension of the case without negatively impacting the rights of the litigants.

The judge has the responsibility to minimize delays for the jurors, to set reasonable time limits for various phases of the trial, to be punctual, and to curtail the use of side-bar conferences with the attorneys in the jurors' presence. The judge and the attorneys must attempt to assure that the information provided to the jurors is clear and comprehensible. In longer trials, judges are encouraged to permit periodic statements by counsel summarizing the evidence to that point and previewing the evidence to come.

If, during deliberations, the jury has a question about the case, the evidence or instructions, the judge must answer that question to the best of his or her ability. Following entry of the verdict, if the case has been unusually difficult in some manner, the court is to provide jurors with an opportunity for debriefing on the case.

Jury Reform is really quite simple. It is a long-overdue attempt to provide a voice to the legitimate concerns of jurors who are performing a civic duty, who wish to be treated with respect and given the best possible information with which to make important decisions. The legal system is not about lawyers and judges; it is principally about litigants and the jurors who decide their fate. In seeking and serving justice, the system has an obligation to be as responsive as possible to the jurors who mete out that justice.

Please see Jury Reform: Civil and Criminal Proposed Rules in Court Business Section of this issue, for the proposed rule changes on jury reform.

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