David J. Beck on the vanishing jury trial.

David Beck, a former president of the State Bar of Texas and American College of Trial Lawyers published an article in the the Texas Bar Journal in December of 2013. In it, he discussed the dirty little secret in the legal world – that there is an indisputable decline in the number of jury and non-jury trials in the United States. In the article, Beck focuses primarily on statistics from his home state of Texas – which showed a 60% decrease in civil jury trials in Texas state courts from 1968 to 2008. Those numbers are staggering – but similar numbers can probably be produced from virtually any state in the Union. What do these numbers mean? Beck contends they like mean the the concept of trial by jury will eventually disappear. And, no doubt a certain percentage of Americans would likely be thrilled. But, as Beck notes, the institution of the jury trial is important to society as whole – not just specific litigants.

A jury’s decision reflects community values. And, the shared-decision aspect of a jury likely results in better decisions. Can you imagine if an elected judge had to make each and every decision in civil and criminal cases?

Additionally, a jury bring all sorts of different ethnic, political and political philosophies together. Each of those jurors has had different experiences in life. Collective wisdom is important in reaching important decisions. Jurors typically do the right thing – and come to the right legal decision. I have been trying juries in a variety of different civil actions for nearly three decades. I can think of perhaps one case where I fundamentally disagreed with the decision of a jury. And I am including my losses.

Finally, the jury system allows everyone – including the poor – access to our system of justice.

Beck points out that fewer trials means fewer judges. And fewer trials means less appeals – which means less development and evolution of existing law. And if existing case law doesn’t evolve, it will be a helluva lot harder for lawyers to advise their clients what may happen. As a result, an aggrieved party may elect NOT to file a lawsuit and a very serious injury, or worse, might never be addressed.

To all those who cheer this development…. be careful what you wish for.

Image courtesy of meltingpot.spaa.org.