There are few institutions that are both revered and ridiculed as much as the American jury. It seems that half of the evaluations of the American jury system quote and support Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous praise, while the other half denounce the jury and call for reform. One of the methods of jury reform that commentators often propose is the use of professional jurors. But what exactly is a “professional juror” and would the use of professional jurors actually solve any problems?
A given professional juror reform proposal might be suggesting that our legal system use
(i) jurors that have completed some minimum level of formal, general
(ii) jurors that have some minimum level of education or experience in the subject matter at trial;
(iii) jurors that have some minimum level of legal education or experience; or
(iv) jurors that are appointed for a period of time so that they gain experience.
While there are many articles supporting one form or another of professional juror reform, very few include empirical evidence. Matthew Reiber and Jill Weinberg identified this gap in the literature and designed an experiment to determine whetherthere is a problem with juror comprehension. Their experiment presented participants (recently summoned jurors) with three factual scenarios, each of which included instructions and two questions. The first scenario was a standard vehicle accident case, the second case was a procedurally complex contract case, and the third scenario was a factually complex securities litigation case. The results of the research indicated that the participants comprehended the first scenario but struggled mightily in comprehending the second and third scenarios.
Aside from indicating that there is a comprehension problem in the current jury system, the Reiber and Weinberg research also bears on the question of whether a professional juror system would be an improvement. The researches collected the education information from each participant and also asked each participant whether she had ever served on a jury. The researchers then statistically analyzed the results of the experiment in light of these two variables and came up with counter-intuitive results. Neither general education level nor prior experience as a juror bore a statistically relevant relationship to comprehension of the second or third fact scenarios. In other words, a juror with a higher general education level and a juror with prior jury experience are no more likely to comprehend complex civil litigation than a juror with a lower general education level and a juror with no prior jury experience.
Although this is only one experiment, the upshot of the results is that we should be very hesitant to entertain the idea of professional jurors without conducting experiments to determine comparative comprehension levels. Many of the supporters of professional jury reform argue based on the intuitive notion that a juror with higher formal education or prior experience will comprehend more about the case. However, the Reiber and Weinberg research indicates that notion, although intuitive, is not correct.
While we should be hesitant to institute a professional jury system without evidence, we should not ignore the first result from the research: there is a problem with juror comprehension in complex cases. The next blog will discuss alternative methods of jury reform that could help with the comprehension problem.