General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine


A Judge’s Perspective on Jury Reform From the Other Side of the Jury Box

By Judith S. Kaye

Thursday, August 15, 1996–I emerged from the subway station at City Hall and enjoyed the short stroll down to the Manhattan Criminal Courts building at 100 Centre Street. I was a little anxious. After all, I was trying out for a new role in the New York State court system, and hoped to be sitting by designation, in a criminal trial that afternoon. Why was I, the Chief Judge of the state, so uncertain about my status? Because I was reporting to the courthouse not as a judge, but as a juror.

My stroll down Centre Street that morning in August was a small part of a larger journey that had actually begun three years earlier, and is still far from complete–the journey to reform the New York State jury system.

The Jury Project. When I became Chief Judge of the State of New York, the jury system was one of the first things I wanted to examine. In the summer of 1993, I appointed a task force, called "The Jury Project," to conduct a top-to-bottom review of New York’s jury system. Using the American Bar Association’s Standards Relating to Juror Use and Management as a guide, The Jury Project recommended a far-ranging program of legislative, administrative, and attitudinal changes for the court system.

Based on The Jury Project’s work, the New York State jury reform program focused on three major objectives: jury pools that are truly representative of the community; a jury system that operates efficiently and effectively; and jury service that is a positive experience for the citizens who are summoned to serve.

Representative Jury Pools. First, we dismantled the "permanent qualified lists" that arbitrarily over summoned some citizens and under summoned others so that every citizen whose name appears on any of the underlying source lists has an equal chance of being called to serve. Next, we expanded the number of source lists that we use: voter registration, driver’s license, state income tax, unemployment, and public assistance rosters. This provides us with a database of 16 million names that includes citizens from all walks of life. Finally, the legislature repealed the state’s entire list of automatic exemptions. Thus, the new year brought a number of new faces into jury boxes across the state–doctors, lawyers, police officers, and yes, judges. Press reports noted how much more diverse the jury pool had become, and how much more willing jurors were to serve.

Efficient Jury System. The second major objective of our jury program was to establish an efficient jury system. We knew from our juror complaint hotline that "wasted time" was the number one criticism registered.

New York’s established tradition of allowing attorneys to select civil juries without any judicial supervision was also a particular source of discontent. Many jurors told similar stories of days and weeks of boring and repetitive questioning and unexplained delays, frequently followed by settlement of the case immediately after completion of this tedious, time-consuming process.

New rules governing the conduct of civil voir dire were adopted following a pilot study that tested the effects of various levels of judicial supervision; alternative methods of jury selection; use of time limits on attorney questioning; and use of non-designated, alternate jurors. The rules identify the methods of jury selection that are the most efficient. Judges must designate one of these selection methods in each case, preside at the commencement of civil jury selection, set time limits on questioning, and continue monitoring as appropriate. The rules have had a positive impact on the length of civil voir dire. In just the first nine months of 1996, the average length of civil jury selection in New York dropped from 9.3 hours to 6.7 hours–a reduction of over 25 percent.

Better use of technology has also helped us improve the efficiency of our jury system. In ten of the largest counties of the state, jurors can now postpone their first summons for up to six months–usually to a specific date of their choice–by using an automated telephone system. All counties have call in systems to help ensure that the supply of jurors reporting closely corresponds to the court’s projected demand–thus, reducing juror waiting time and trial part downtime.

But efficiency in a jury system is not just a matter of machinery–it’s also a matter of active court management. The court system held "juror utilization workshops" for New York City jury commissioners and court administrators, who then developed their own county-specific juror utilization plans which focus on better communication between court parts and jury administrators, as well as between court staff and jurors.

Jury Service as a Positive Experience. In New York, we are working to ensure that jury service is an experience that inspires trust and respect in our courts. Because the physical condition of our court-houses is seen by many as a metaphor for our system of justice, our jury program included the provision of clean and comfortable juror facilities.

Courteous and professional treatment by courthouse staff is another component of a positive jury experience. In New York, we have emphasized service to the public in formal training programs, as well as through day-to-day management supervision. Juror exit surveys confirm that our efforts are paying off. In 1995, nearly 90 percent of the jurors who completed surveys indicated that they found court staff to be professional and courteous.

But without question, one of the best ways to improve the basic jury experience is to minimize the burdens of service. To that end, we expanded our jury pools and improved juror management techniques; we cut our statewide average term of service by 50 percent in less than three years, with 58 of the 62 counties in the state now on a "one day/one trial" system; we instituted a system whereby people are summoned less frequently, with all counties except Manhattan and the Bronx, both currently on a four-year (or longer) summoning schedule; we secured legislation that eliminates mandatory sequestration on an experimental basis in all but the most serious criminal trials (and we hope to make the experiment permanent); and we are increasing juror compensation from $15 to $40 over the next two years.

Do I Think Judges Should Serve Jury Duty? You bet I do. Judges’ participation serves at least four important functions. The first is the symbolic value of judges themselves demonstrating that every citizen has an equal duty to serve. Second, as a practical matter, exempting one group of busy professionals would quickly lead to the excusal of others, and begin the landslide back to the bad old days where an unfortunate few were called like clockwork while the rest of us blithely ignored the system. Third, with time, I believe that attorneys will become more comfortable with the notion of judges and other law-trained individuals serving as jurors, and more of them will be chosen to sit. This will allow a large group of well-educated citizens to contribute their collective wisdom and life experiences to the deliberative process.

Finally, jury duty may also help judges be more effective when they move back from the box to the bench. When drafting instructions, they will be able to draw on their experience of having to comprehend and apply the boilerplate passages we often use. They may have new interest in other measures designed to promote juror comprehension, such as note taking, preliminary instructions, and interim summations.

Honorable Judith S. Kaye is the Chief Judge of the State of New York.


- This article is an abridged and edited version of one that originally appeared on page 18 in The Judges’ Journal, Fall 1997 (36:4).

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