Jury Vital Part of Democracy

Jury service, a critical part of democracy, is shunned or ignored by Americans as a job for someone else.
Yet, without that service, America’s legal system would not work, according to Charles A. (Chuck) Adams, University of Tulsa College of Law professor. Serving on a jury is every bit as important as voting, though people do not see the parallel responsibilities.
The U.S. is very different from any other country in the world because most do not have juries, he continued. Their courts operate with a panel of judges that make decisions in all cases. Obviously, both systems have advantages and have room for improvement. The reality is that some parts of the world don’t believe in the jury system made up of lay people.
Today’s technology demands a continuous refining of the courts, from basic operations to jury instructions. All changes go forward with the approval of either the Oklahoma Supreme Court or the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals.
America has an adversarial court system, he said. That allows plaintiff and defense attorneys to argue cases to the best of their ability. Judges are tasked with properly instructing juries at the end of the procedures.
Utilizing lay people on a panel requires a lot of understanding on the part of the court — the judge and participating attorneys — to make certain cases clearly are presented so a fair verdict can be reached.
Judges must fulfill their role to ensure that proper procedures are followed and all juries have appropriate and accurate instructions, he continued. If there is any breakdown a jury doesn’t know what to do.
Learning those court procedures reaches back to the classroom where Adams teaches law students procedures that generally are followed. This includes videos of a jury trial and an attorney’s style. It also includes physically observing courtroom procedures and preparing a paper on the topic.
Adams’ assignment isn’t busy work for students. It is important they learn voir dire, how to determine whether or not a person is qualified to serve on the panel that will hear their case.
A key part of a good jury is that they must be a totally disinterested party, a key part of jury selection. Each attorney has a preemptory challenge and has ‘‘three strikes’’ where they can cause three potential jurors to be removed, Adams explained. Attorneys have an official agenda as they go into the courtroom for trial, but they also can have a hidden agenda known only to them in the selection process.
The bottom line is an attorney is going to try his best to win the case for his client, he said. It is during this jury selection that they may attempt to ‘‘try the case’’ if the judge will let them. It is questionable as to whether or not trying a case during the jury selection process is productive. But it also is during the jury selection time — and the only time — an attorney will have an actual dialogue with a juror.
There is a difference between district and federal court jury selections, Adams said. Federal judges question jurors, moving that selection process ahead more quickly. He doesn’t have to and traditionally doesn’t allow an attorney to question jurors. District court jury selection is determined after attorneys have questioned people and utilized their ‘‘three strikes.’’
Jury instructions are critical in any trial, especially in district court, and these often are spelled out as the result of the work of a committee and approved by the Supreme Court.
Adams, who has served on the jury instruction committee, said the intent is to make certain applicable laws are explained.
These formal instructions came about because of variations that occurred throughout the state resulting in different outcomes for people charged with the same offense in criminal cases. A similar finding with instructions in civil cases.
Before the uniform instruction process was introduced and adopted, many cases were reversed, Adams said. Judges often didn’t get the explanation of the law correct and mistakes were made.
The Supreme Court adopted instruction rules for civil cases and the Court of Criminal Appeals handled rules for criminal cases, he said. As a result, there were fewer reversals. Jury instructions must be correct. That made the entire legal process more efficient when the number of reversals was reduced.
Jury instructions also can become outdated, Adams said. When this happens a trial judge can apply the instructions ‘‘as long as they are correct.’’ If those instructions are not used, the trial judge must give reasons when cases are reviewed during the appeal process.
Since the instruction process was adopted, the Oklahoma Supreme Court has never ruled a civil jury instruction was incorrect, Adams noted. Rules differ with the Court of Criminal Appeals and juvenile cases involve a whole separate set of rules.
All are very involved and detailed.
Despite all efforts, it never will be possible to attain perfection in preparing jury instructions, Adams continued. But every effort is being made to accomplish this task.
It also is the responsibility of the judge to stay current as much as possible on the law.
No attorney should be totally surprised by jury instructions, he said. Bound volumes are available and the information also is on line. These instructions tell juries what the law is.
The challenge with instructions is keeping the law current and making it understandable to juries. It is difficult, but every emphasis is made to keep them correct.
Efforts also are made to eliminate as much legal jargon as possible, especially that which would not be helpful to juries. It is part of the responsibility of attorneys and judges to keep the language as simple as possible while fulfilling the requirements of the law. But those same instructions also can be fine tuned only to a certain point and still comply with the law.



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