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Fed Judge Proposes Juror Bill of Rights (With a Right to Cookies)

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on September 22, 2015 3:57 PM

No one likes jury duty. And most prospective juries will do plenty to get out of it, from outright ignoring summonses (as in Houston's suburbs, where 70 percent of individuals called for jury duty don't show) or showing up dressed as Princess Leia (as Liz Lemon did to avoid service on '30 Rock'). There's a reason for the jury antipathy too: the legal system treats jurors terribly.

If jury trials are to be successful, we need to start thinking of what jurors actually need. That's the argument behind federal judge Mark Bennett's forthcoming piece in the Arizona State Law Journal. Courts and practitioners need to start thinking in terms of what jurors want. Is it time for a Juror Bill of Rights?

The Juror Bill of Rights

The Sixth and Seventh Amendment rights to trial by jury are meaningless when you can't get together a decent jury pool. And at least twice, courts have had to postpone murder trials because not enough prospective jurors showed up, The Atlantic reports. The best way to get people to change their mind about jury duty is to start respecting them.

Judge Bennett, of the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Iowa, argues that a Juror Bill of Rights, adopted and practiced in court, would make jurors enthusiastic participants "in the purest form of democracy in action" and "our greatest community ambassadors" for trial by jury. Here are the five rights he argues courts must respect.

1. Jurors Have the Right Not to Have Their Time Wasted

Hey, no one said respecting jurors' rights was going to be easy, particularly when wasting time is a time-honored, if not entirely respected, legal strategy. But, Judge Bennett argues, respecting juror time can and must be done. That means no sidebars, strict adherence to starting and ending court on time, computer-aided juror selection, "efficient and snappy" voir dire, limits on opening and closing arguments, and the elimination of excessive witnesses and exhibits.

2. Jurors Have the Right to Know How Long a Trial Will Last

Tell a juror that a trial is likely to last a week and it's sure to last three. And nothing leaves jurors resenting their service more than to have trials drag out much longer than expected -- it disrupts lives, work, and expectations. According to Judge Bennett, strict time limits are one of the most easily adopted jury improvements.

3. Jurors Have the Right to Plain English Jury Instructions at the Outset

Jurors aren't lawyers -- thank God -- and they should know what they are looking for from the onset, according to Judge Bennett. He already gives jurors a "written set of plain English final instructions before opening statements," complete with table of contents and bullet points.

4. Jurors Have the Right to Innovations That Improve Experience, Fairness

That is, they have the right to have their trial judge "thoughtfully consider" such innovations. That doesn't mean that every courtroom needs to be equipped with virtual reality machines. Instead, innovations like earlier hours, improved note-taking and jury questioning of witnesses should be allowed.

5. Jurors Have the Right to Creature Comforts

What sort of comforts does the Juror Bill of Rights envision? Comfortable seating in the jury box, hourly stretch breaks, nutritious snacks, and access to microwaves and refrigerators. Oh, and cookies. Jurors have a right to cookies. (Really.) "When all else fails to make a trial a positive experience for juror, trial judges should try bribing them," Judge Bennett concludes.

Sound reasonable? Possible? Let us know what you think about the Juror Bill of Rights via Twitter (@FindLawLP) or Facebook (FindLaw for Legal Professionals).

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