The Significance of Sleeping Jurors

In March, twenty judicial educators from around the country came together in the latest callinar presented by the Education and Curriculum Committee. Callinars were created by the committee as a way of bringing together members of NASJE to discuss relevant issues, when a formal webinar is not necessary. Thea Whalen of Texas served as the host of the event, assisted by Julie McDonald of Indiana, Janice Calvi of Connecticut, Dawn McCarty of Michigan, Ben Barham of Arkansas and Tony Simones of Missouri.

The article being discussed was “Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury, Please Wake Up” from The Wall Street Journal, which addressed the problem of inattentive juries. After an initial acknowledgment that this was a problem throughout the country, the conversation shifted to why we should care. One of the central points that was developed by a number of participants focused on the fact that the power and credibility of the courts is shaped by the public perception of the courts. If that perception is one of important decisions being made by inattentive jurors, then the courts will be facing a major crisis. Some NASJE members made the argument that the right to trial by jury mentioned so prominently in the Constitution becomes simply an empty promise if jurors are not living up to their responsibilities.

NASJE members also discussed why jurors are inattentive: a human attention span that becomes shorter and shorter every day, the physiological challenge of staying seated and focused for hours at a time, the unfamiliar terminology used during the trial, the complexity of cases and evidence, ineffective attorneys and the bad attitude and resentment that comes with jury duty.

The greatest amount of time and energy was devoted to the actions that could be taken to address this problem. The ideas ranged from making sure that the individuals serving on a jury understand the importance of their service and the expectations of the judge to allowing jurors to take notes and ask questions.

One of the most significant points made during the discussion was that jury trials typically occur under conditions that contradict the most basic standards of effective judicial education. In our educational sessions, material is divided into smaller, more easily digested sections. Participants are provided with frequent shifts in focus and approach and material is presented to engage multiple learning styles. Trials frequently feature droning recitations that stretch over multiple hours, under physical circumstances and conditions that could hardly be considered ideal. It is little wonder that some jurors fall asleep.

The participants concluded that education for judges conducting trials should go beyond instruction on issuing rulings from the bench and extend to information on how to keep a jury engaged and focused. This more “jury conscious” approach would encompass everything from improving the environment in which juries serve to limiting the time they are in court between breaks.

The participants agreed that this is a situation in which judicial education has a role to play. Trial judges can be enlightened in judicial education sessions about the strategies and techniques that will produce the most focused and aware juries. These best practices would go far beyond merely coddling jurors. If the Sixth and Seventh Amendments are truly essential components of the Bill of Rights, then we need to take action to ensure that the people at the heart of making these amendments a reality are most effectively able to carry out their essential function. This is the obligation of the judge, but it is also the responsibility of the judicial educator.

We invite you to join us for the next callinar, “Humans Hate Being Spun,” on May 23 at 2:00 EDT.