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Jury Committee Calls for 48 Reforms

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Jury Committee Calls for 48 Reforms

Article Appeared in Tampa Bay Review, by: Hali White, Staff Write, February 15, 2002

Trial lawyers oppose letting jurors discuss trials among themselves before deliberations.

After hearing strong opposition from the Florida Trial Bar, the Florida Supreme Court began deliberating whether to adopt sweeping jury reforms as proposed last week by a statewide Jury Innovations Committee.

The Jury Innovations Committee, led by former Florida Attorney General and now Third District Court of Appeal Judge Robert Shevin, presented 48 recommendations for jury reform in a day-long hearing before the High Court in Tallahassee. The suggestions came after the committee met periodically for more than a year to consider ways to make Florida’s jury system more user-friendly and effective.

A few of the recommendations drew opposition from the Florida Bar Trial Lawyers Section and the Florida Board of Trial Advocates. Speaking before the court, Tampa attorney Thomas Scarritt, Jr., Chairman of the Trial Lawyers Section, argued against a recommendation to study the current method of peremptory challenges.

Both the trial lawyers and the trial advocates oppose any such study.

“There shouldn’t be any change to the present system to allowing lawyers certain numbers of challenges without having to justify why other than being able to explain why it was not a discriminatory reason,” Scarritt said. “Because lawyers know the case best. They know it better than the judges.”

The issue came before the court because the public widely considers the jury summons in the same vein as a dental appointment. Each prompts groaning, grumbling and excuses not to show.

“Based on the way the arguments went, I think they understand that our goal was to push the envelope, to innovate, to recommend changes because I think our present system is antiquated,” Shevin told the Tampa Bay Review.

The trial lawyer groups also argued against what Shevin considers to be one of the committees’ most cutting-edge proposals – allowing jurors to discuss evidence as it is presented.

“Particularly on a long, complex trial where they’re in court for weeks and it may involve life or liberty or millions of dollars, when they hear witnesses, they learn more by asking questions and going over matters fresh in their mind,” Shevin said.

“If they have to wait until the end of the case, they won’t remember it all. As long as they’re all together – not one-on-one or two-on-two – in the jury room and they want to discuss what an expert just said, they ought to be able to do that because then they’ll have greater assurance and confidence in their verdict,” added Shevin who serves on the bench in Miami.

At first glance, the trial lawyers found some merit in the recommendations.

“Initially, it had some appeal to us,” Scarritt said. “The more we thought about it the more we feared that allowing juries to deliberate before the end of the case will encourage them to make up their mind before they’ve heard all the evidence.”

The civil jury instructions committee questioned the committee’s recommendation that juror instructions should be as simple and clear as possible.

“Their question to the court was, ‘If you accept these recommendations, are you going to make us start over, and if so, are we going to have some professional assistance?’ ” Shevin said.

There were other concerns presented to the court, Shevin said, such as one professor who wanted to discuss the juror source list.

“He was primarily supportive of the recommendations,” Shevin said. “I didn’t really have anything to discuss or rebut with him. We were satisfied that the present system (using the drivers license list) is a good “system.”

Some things not recommended to the Supreme Court: videotaping court proceedings for absent jurors, a statewide law requiring employers to pay their employees while they serve on juries, institutionalizing the process of juror debriefing and reducing the size of either criminal or civil juries.

Shevin said he doesn’t know when to expect the Supreme Court to issue its position on the recommendations.

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