Jurors Give High Marks to Mass. Court System

Exclusive LW Survey Rebuts Popular Image

Published: 1:00 am Mon, August 14, 2000

By DAVID L. YAS Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly

A striking proportion of Superior Court jurors describe their courtroom experience as a positive one, an exclusive survey conducted by Lawyers Weekly and MCLE has revealed.Many jurors who agreed to provide feedback reported that they “were pleasantly surprised,” considered it an “interesting and worthwhile experience” and said that jury duty “helped restore faith in the system.”The findings are part on an ongoing Lawyers Weekly/MCLE project using questionnaires designed to elicit comments from jurors after sitting on a case. The questionnaires are not intended to be scientific; instead, they employ open-ended questions to draw out candid juror commentary. Approximately 30 Superior Court judges have administered the questionnaires, and District Court judges will be added soon.Although the results of the questionnaires cover a broad number of topics — many of which will be featured in a regular Lawyers Weekly column in the future, the most prominent aspect of the surveys returned thus far (more than 100) has been jurors’ consistent expression of overall satisfaction with the system.Superior Court Chief Justice Suzanne V. Delvecchio said that she was “not at all surprised by the results. Talking to jurors after a trial, I can’t remember a single time when a juror said that he was unsatisfied with the process … even though they might have tried to get out of doing it.”Douglas K. Sheff, president of the Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys, said that the survey reflects the quality of claims brought by plaintiffs’ attorneys in the state.“It shows that cases are not being brought in a frivolous manner, and that for the most part they are well-reasoned claims of law,” said Sheff. “It’s heartening. It shows that jurors felt that there’s a legitimate conflict. They wouldn’t feel that way if it was a slam-dunk or a frivolous claim.”

Who’s Disgruntled?

The survey responses paint a stark contrast to the popular image of the embittered juror, begrudgingly reporting for duty because he could not produce a viable excuse — and enduring the experience as though serving a sentence.“It is an experience that will stay with me,” said one juror. “I don’t think anyone appreciates the amount of time spent before that final verdict is read, and reaching that verdict is not easy.”Another juror wrote: “I felt the judge and lawyers kept the process moving along to the best of their ability, the judge informing the jury of the estimated timetable and setting expectations for the jury.”A juror who served on a “tough case” said he would nevertheless do it again: “It is truly my belief that if someone I knew and cared about had to come before the court on a serious matter I would be completely satisfied with the 12 people I served with on this jury. Our justice system may not be perfect but it works and I am proud to have served.”Another juror who was “dreading it” and thought the case “a bit ridiculous,” was otherwise pleased with the experience, reporting that “it was my first experience as a juror and I learned a lot.”There were certain aspects of jury duty that jurors had problems with — courthouse conditions and “down time” among them.“Jurors should not have to clean up their jury room,” wrote one juror. “They should not have to pay for their parking or gas and they should be treated with more respect.”Another juror did not appreciate “having to constantly pass by — within one foot — both the plaintiff and the defendant each time we entered the courtroom.”And a third unhappy juror commented that “it was not only a waste of my time, but the compensation is ridiculous.”But jurors overwhelmingly reported positive feelings about the task they were asked to perform.“This is a very interesting, very emotionally intense experience,” read one response. “I always come away from it feeling quite patriotic and proud of our system, which gives such power and responsibility to its citizens.”Another juror noted: “After several cases such as the O.J. Simpson trial I lost all respect for the system. This case helped restore my respect for the system. There is hope for us.”

No Surprise?

Superior Court Judge Richard J. Chin said the positive responses are unsurprising to judges because “we see it every day.”Jurors “come in and they are reluctant to be there, but once they’re in the box they take it very seriously,” said Chin, former chairman of the Jury Management Advisory Committee.Chin said that he once had a juror who claimed he was bitter about the court system because he had just gone through a divorce.“I felt that he was intelligent so I put him on the jury,” recounted Chin, who explained that he later got a letter back from the juror recounting what a great experience the case had been.Delvecchio said she had a similar experience with a business executive who pleaded to be excused from jury duty.“I didn’t let him get out of it,” said the judge. “And later he said ‘It was so fabulous. I’m so glad you made me stay.’”Sheff said while “you do hear about [disgruntled jurors], once you get into it you realize that it’s not so bad. It’s a fear of the unknown, being a juror. People naturally dread the unknown.”Taunton trial lawyer Mark R. Karsner said he was not surprised that jurors “take the job so seriously,” but was surprised to hear that jurors enjoyed the experience so much.“Usually people liken it to a trip to the dentist,” he said.When a judge asks whether there is any reason why anyone cannot sit on a jury, “a ton of hands go up,” explained Karsner. “I do get the feeling that they don’t want to be there. … So these findings are refreshing.”

Treat Them Right

Chin said he believes that the results of the survey should signal to lawyers that jurors expect to be treated respectfully.“Jurors expect a lot,” he said. “They expect lawyers to be well prepared. They don’t like to have their time wasted, so we have to be cautious that we’re doing a good job. That means for judges not having a lot of recesses and trying to schedule the case so that we use their time efficiently.”Chin added that “for lawyers it means getting to the point. Jurors are intelligent. They see through a lot of the maneuvering.”Karsner agreed that avoiding any time-wasting is certainly one of the top challenges of trying a jury case.“I’ve seen jurors stare at the ceilings,” he said. “It’s an uphill battle sometimes. … When a judge sets a time limit for a trial, woe to the lawyer who makes the trial go beyond that limit. The best advice I ever got was from [veteran trial lawyer] Paul Sugarman: Overprepare and under-try.”Sheff said lawyers “must be doing something right. … We’re not wasting their time.”