It’s a basic lesson from grade school social studies that the right to a jury trial is fundamental. In this day and age, that basic right is under attack from many sides. It is under attack from special interest groups who seek to limit their accountability for misconduct. It is also under attack from the effects of general budget issues that chronically underfund our Courts. With that said, let me come down from my soapbox and talk about something a little more practical – the importance of having enough potential jurors present for trial.
This morning, The Huntsville Times ran an article about a local case that had to be continued simply because of a lack of potential jurors. The local case involves a proposed rock quarry and a significant claim for damages against a local municipality and its mayor. Naturally, it’s a high profile case. Finding impartial jurors would have been difficult under the best circumstances. That’s understandable. The residents living in and around the proposed quarry may very well have deep feelings on the issue preventing their service on the jury.
Yet, it appears the problem is not simply one of finding unbiased jurors. Instead, it’s a problem of starting numbers – too few people from which to strike a jury. Several civil jury trials were set in Madison County this week, including this high-profile case. However, according to the article in the paper, only 90 potential jurors were available for all these cases. That’s too few to provide panels for all the cases set. It’s far too few when one of those cases also brings some publicity with it.
I don’t know why only 90 jurors were available. However, I do know that the printed lists of people contacted for jury duty on trial weeks is much, much larger than 90 people. I frequently see those printed lists because of my law practice in Madison County. Is this a problem of the court system being ineffective in actually notifying all those potential jurors? Does the court system need to better calendar and coordinate its jury trials? I don’t know. I’ll leave that issue to the people who run our local court.
In my experience, the people serving on our juries are deeply committed to bringing justice to the case they are hearing. Our jurors listen and often take notes. They pay close attention to the evidence and take the job very seriously. After I finish a trial, I often talk with the jurors about their experience. Every time I leave one of those conversations, I walk away with a deeper respect for our system and the seriousness in which the jurors listened and tried to make the best decision possible (often under difficult circumstances).
Whatever caused the lack of potential jurors, it is important that people are available to hear the cases in our local courts. It does often take a very large starting number of potential jurors to get the 12 needed to hear each individual case. It takes a large number when there are multiple trials happening at one time. It also sometimes takes a large number when the issues, like the case this week, are public issues involving a local community.
It also takes a large number of potential jurors in the typical case involving damages from an automobile collision. Why? Alabama law requires every driver to have liability insurance. Yet, in a trial involving damages from an automobile collision, the attorneys are prohibited from ever mentioning the truth that the defendant actually has insurance. While this fact cannot be mentioned at the trial, the courthouse officials will typically ask the entire panel of potential jurors about their individual coverage before the trial ever begins. What happens next – in our State several large automobile insurance companies dominate the market. When those potential jurors have the same insurance as the defendant, they are typically stricken from serving on that particular jury. In these cases, there could to be too few jurors remaining to have a trial. That’s why it is so important for our courthouse officials to plan and do everything possible to make sure that enough potential jurors are available. It’s also important that those called to jury duty appear, if at all possible. Justice delayed often results in justice denied for all of us.