Does the number of jurors on a panel matter? Does it affect the fairness of the panel in deciding cases? Moreover, does justice require a unanimous verdict? Or, asked another way, does justice require that one lone dissenter prevent a jury panel from deciding a case? These questions have long been debated by legal scholars. Jury practices vary between different jurisdictions and these questions are not just ones for theoretical debate. Instead, these questions present an opportunity to discuss our court system and how it will continue to operate in the best manner to administer justice fairly in our community.
Yesterday, the New York Times published an opinion piece on the budget crisis facing state courts throughout the United States. I have written about Alabama’s budget problems on several prior occasions. I certainly would not advocate altering our jury system simply based on cost. Justice is too important. However, if the ends of justice could just as equally be obtained with a 6 person panel as opposed to a 12 person panel, then the issue is one that should be considered. So, it’s an interesting debate.
Recently, the Alabama Association for Justice (AAJ) asked me to write a short statement on the issue. My memo to the AAJ is too lengthy to include here in its entirety. But, I did find some interesting statistics and research quotes to get a debate started. To begin, fixing the number of jurors at 12 is largely traditional and dates from medieval times. In Alabama, that number appears to have been simply accepted as the correct number with little or no thought. However, in the 1970’s, the U.S. Supreme Court addressed the issue and held that 6 member juries were valid under the U.S. Constitution. Specifically, the Supreme Court held that
we conclude that a jury of six satisfies the Seventh Amendment’s guarantee of trial by a jury in civil cases.
While most states have continued to require 12 member juries for felony cases, this is not the case for civil juries. By 2004, only 25 states continued to require 12 member juries for civil cases in their general jurisdiction courts.
A separate issue involves the requirement that all jurors be unanimous for the jury to reach a verdict. We have all heard about trials where one lone person disagreed with all the other jurors, resulting in a mistrial. Should there be a procedure that allows the jury to reach a decision based on less than a unanimous verdict? I found a 2006 law review article that addressed this issue:
The unanimity standard, however, has significantly eroded for verdicts in civil cases. Federal juries must be unanimous, but only eighteen states require unanimity and another three accept a non-unanimous verdict after six hours of deliberation. The remaining states permit super-majorities of between two-thirds and five-sixths in civil cases.
The statistics I pulled on jury size and unanimity are now a few years old. It is likely that they have changed. However, the question remains – Would a change in jury size or the unanimity requirement impact the interests of justice? If the ends of justice are still served by reducing the jury size or allowing for a verdict over a lone holdout, then it is certainly an issue to consider. The court system would achieve a greater efficiency in moving cases and reducing costs if the standards were relaxed. When you raise the topic with most attorneys, they immediately have a strong reaction either positively or negatively. I would love to hear comments from both lawyers and non-lawyers on this important right that makes our justice system so special.