Law 360 reported this week on prominent trial attorney Steve Susman of the Susman Godfey law firm calling for changes to the system for civil jury trials. Here is the article.

Here are Susman’s suggestions for improvement:

  • trials should be shorter
  • jury panels should be larger
  • jury instructions should be simpler
  • judges should decide discovery disputes faster, by phone if necessary
  • allow juror questions during trial
  • non-movable trial settings.

On the issue of jury instructions, the article states:

Also confounding jurors today are lengthy jury instructions, riddled with language plucked from case law, that end up being ‘incomprehensible’ even to the lawyers in the room, he said, calling for shorter, simpler instructions in civil cases.

On the issue of larger juries, Susman suggests expanding civil juries to 20 jurors and requiring 16 jurors to reach a verdict.

Susman “says jurors can be the last bastion of fairness and impartiality, especially in today’s politically charged atmosphere, where more money and political maneuvering is flowing into judicial elections, unseating qualified judged and eroding public trust in the courts.”

My Take:

For anyone whose first knee-jerk reaction is that Susman is a wing-nut who doesn’t know what he’s talking about, go read his bio here.

These are great suggestions.

The jury instruction system is broken, as I most recently discussed here. My guess is that when judges are reading the instructions in a civil trial, almost no one in the entire courtroom is even listening. But even if someone is listening, the instructions are too long to make any sense. Instructions should be shortened and simplified with attention given to improving the process for deciding what instructions to give, and when to give them.

Non-movable trial settings is an interesting idea that might make sense. We know from the federal court system that setting trials results in cases resolving faster. But we have some state court judges who take the opposite approach and basically resist setting civil trials. Setting trials and pushing cases is clearly the better way to go.

The important thing is for the bar and judicial leadership to admit that the system can be improved and at least start talking about how to do it.

Here are my prior posts on improving the jury system.