Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : June 2005

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Bar and Bench Examine Nuts & Bolts of Jury Duty
By Janet Stidman Eveleth

Dispelling rumors that the American jury system is a luxury our country can no longer afford, members of Maryland’s Bar and Bench gathered at an innovative jury symposium on March 29, 2005, to examine our state’s civil jury system and gave it relatively high marks. At “The Maryland Jury: Today and Tomorrow,” sponsored by the Council on Jury Use & Management, the Maryland Defense Counsel and Maryland Trial Lawyers Association, prominent lawyers and judges discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the state’s civil jury system and explored ways to improve jury service in the state.

Today's Jury
is not your

The Honorable
Dennis M. Sweeney

This day-long session, held at the University of Maryland School of Law, featured panel after panel of jury commissioners, trial lawyers and judges sharing their perspective on the nuts and bolts of jury service and selection in Maryland. They offered suggestions on ways to improve the experience for citizens called for jury duty, as did a panel of real jurors from Baltimore City. Overall, the future direction of jury service in Maryland, and potential reforms, were probed.

“Today’s jury is not your grandfather’s jury,” reports the Honorable Dennis M. Sweeney, Chair of the Judiciary’s Council on Jury Use & Management and coordinator of the symposium. “Today’s jurors want a faster-paced, more interactive process and not one where they are merely lectured at for days. It is the legal system’s challenge to find ways to accommodate these trends without doing violence to the traditional role of the jury.”

The Honorable Robert M. Bell, Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals of Maryland, opened the event, greeting the audience of 135 legal professionals. “This is a timely program because our jury system is often under attack today,” he proclaimed. “The jury is a fundamental part of the justice system, so we must re-examine the process and look for ways to strengthen and improve it for our fellow citizens.”

Referring to a 2004 ABA poll, Bell cited “Americans’ strong belief in the jury system, even if it is inconvenient, especially by those who have already served.” He hopes Maryland can improve the convenience so courts can “call in jurors only when needed and utilize them properly.” In addition, he hopes to remove barriers such as compensation, restrictions on citizens with minor criminal convictions and juror safety/security concerns.

One of the highlights of the day was a panel of jurors who gave realistic impressions of jury service from their perspectives (see “What Do Jurors Really Think”, Page 5). A panel of jury commissioners discussed jury recruitment and service in, respectively, Baltimore, Howard and Montgomery Counties. Voter and MVA records are the basis of jury pools in each jurisdiction, although Howard has added ID cards, and they all offer as much flexibility as possible to potential jurors in terms of scheduling. All are encountering problems with non-citizens being summoned and language barriers.

In a session on protecting the integrity of the jury, trial attorneys Michael J. Baxter and Robert R. Michael, along with the Honorable Richard H. Sothoron, Jr., analyzed the Court’s Council on Jury Use and Management 2000 Report and Recommendations. Areas of concern included mini-opening statements, peremptory challenges, jurors asking questions and the use of alternate jurors.

However, permitting juror discussion during the course of the trial generated a great deal of debate as it was disturbing to all three. “Jurors don’t have the framework until the entire trial is over,” warned Michael. “They need to have an open mind,” echoed Baxter. “The issues are constantly changing, so discussion needs to wait until the end of the trial,” added Sothoron.

Other programs included voir dire practice pointers, advanced technology for selecting jurors, “getting them and holding them” and overall trends and facts and figures about Maryland’s jury service, with Judge Sweeney presiding. Sweeney told the audience that Maryland has roughly 1,643 civil trials a year (not counting those in Garrett and Prince George’s County, where statistics were not available), and the average length of a trial is “two to three days.”

Finally, the group looked to the future. Everything from no-show jurors and the city’s lack of qualified jurors to possible statewide reforms and innovations were examined as the audience took a new, closer look at Maryland’s jury system. Sweeney announced that Maryland’s Judiciary has created an Honor Roll to recognize employers who fully compensate employees throughout their entire jury service, in an effort to enhance juror compensation, and the Council on Jury Use and Management will draft model jury service employer policies and make them available to employers.

In addition, Sweeney also reported that the Court may seek legislation in the 2006 session to ease jury service restrictions for Marylanders with minor criminal convictions. “Our restrictions, reportedly the harshest in the nation, disqualify anyone with a criminal conviction of six months or more, or $500 or more, even if the penalty is fully suspended, unless the person is pardoned by the Governor,” he noted.

Sweeney was very pleased with the first Bar/Bench jury symposium and its excellent turnout. “The symposium was an opportunity for lawyers who face off against each other in the court room on a daily basis to drop back and reflect on how well or poorly the jury system is working,” he said. “I was impressed with the respect everyone had for those who serve on juries; it’s a system that works well, and we can make it even better. There seemed to be a commitment on all sides – judges, lawyers, jury commissioners and jurors – to find ways to improve and preserve the civil jury system.”

It was clear that symposium participants hold differing views on the jury that are contingent upon their role/interaction with the jury. However, they all consider the jury a vital component in Maryland’s justice system and recognize the juror’s important role in deciding and administering justice.

“There may be another jury program next year, and other jury-related programs around the state are possible in the future,” Sweeney reports. “With the level of enthusiasm present, I am sure that we will find ways to keep this momentum going.”

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: June, 2005

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