Save Our Juries supports CCE in their efforts improve the administration of justice in the local and federal courts. We share a vision to raise awareness of the justice system and the civil jury trial as a treasured institution that upholds and protects the democratic principles on which our country was founded.
The jury system is deeply connected to our Constitution; yet the number of jury trials has been dwindling in recent years, and many members of the public have a less-than-positive perception of jury service. Although this is a national problem, with national implications, it is also a local issue, and there is much that can be done locally to create the conditions for change.
The Council for Court Excellence (CCE) is a non-partisan, non-profit organization that is focused on improving the administration of justice in the District of Columbia that has been working on improving jury service in Washington, DC for nearly 30 years. Our latest effort is a comprehensive examination of the way jury service works and can be improved in this community. The CCE Jury Project mirrors the organization in that the project committee consists of representatives from the plaintiff and defense bars and law firms large and small. We have representatives from prosecuting agencies as well as the defender services. The committee also has members who are jury consultants, academics, business leaders, judges, and former jurors. Our project has two co-chairs: Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson of the US District Court for the District of Columbia and Irvin Nathan, the former Attorney General of the District of Columbia.
CCE’s Jury Project is still finalizing its recommendations, with a goal of publishing them in June, but in this post we would like to share a few of our ideas with the supporters of Save Our Juries. The project committee is subdivided into three working groups, so we will explain our ideas here in a similar manner, by highlighting just one possible recommendation from each group.
The juror care working group aims to improve the overall experience of jury service. For example, while the DC courts provide jurors with lounges, wifi, childcare, and a business center, many prospective jurors are unaware of these amenities. One possible recommendation is that the jury summons be redesigned to provide more information up front about what to expect in general, about the process of jury selection, and about available amenities both inside the courthouse and the surrounding areas. This would not only make service more inviting from the very start, it would also prepare people to make the most of their experience.
The jury pool and summoning working group is focusing on the summoning response rate and process. This group has determined that employer jury service policies are one of the greatest factors influencing whether or not a citizen will respond to the call for service. To that end, CCE is exploring the idea of “Civic Leave”—i.e., dedicated time off that an employee may take for jury service and voting. Civic Leave makes explicit the constitutional and civic nature of jury service, equates jury service with voting as an important democratic act, and re-brands and improves the perception of jury service. CCE is considering drafting a model civic leave policy, and believes that get-out-the-vote organizations, courts, and employers will be eager to participate.
The trial structure working group is examining voir dire procedures and social media use, and is also researching innovative techniques that can be employed by judges to better engage jurors. Because there is a growing body of research that suggests that allowing jurors to ask questions keeps them more engaged in the trial, allows them to combat false narratives they may have mentally constructed, and improves their understanding of the evidence, one recommendation that this group is considering is encouraging judges to allow jurors to ask fact questions of witnesses in civil trials. Although CCE’s upcoming recommendations are focused on improving juror service in the District of Columbia, they are likely to be broadly applicable and thus may hold promise for nationwide reform. CCE plans to release its jury project report in June in conjunction with an outreach campaign and associated implementation efforts. If you would like to learn more, have ideas, or think you may be a good partner in CCE’s efforts, please reach out.
Zach Zarnow, Jury Project Manager, Council for Court Excellence