The Runaway Jury?

The 7th Amendment to our United States’ Constitution (ratified in 1791) states in its entirety that:

In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

Clearly, our Founding Fathers felt strongly about the right to a trial by jury for civil lawsuits. Indeed, our Founding Fathers also included the provision in Article III which provided that “The Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury….” Thus, the very foundation of our justice system, both civil and criminal, is built upon the fundamental tenet of a “trial by jury.”

In modern times, the sanctity of a “trial by jury” has come under attack; although, this attack has focused almost solely on the civil jury. Recently, I attended a luncheon hosted by Texas Watch, a non-partisan, advocacy organization that is committed to working to improve consumer and insurance protections for Texas families. Texas Watch strives to provide a counter to wealthy special interest lobby efforts and ensure Texas laws reflect the true needs of Texas families and consumers. At this luncheon, Texas Watch spoke, among other things, about the dangers of chipping away the sacred right of all Americans and Texans to a “trial by jury.”

Jim Lees was the featured speaker at the luncheon. Mr. Lees often speaks to large groups of people on topics affecting the legal community, and often, this includes business leaders at various events and chamber of commerce meetings. Mr. Lees told one such story of where he was speaking at a large chamber of commerce meeting; I will try to do it justice.

Mr. Lees stated that he was speaking at the podium to a large group of what appeared to be affluent businessmen and businesswomen. He told them, “The juries in America are out of control.” This sparked the crowd’s interest and he saw general nodding throughout the audience. He then added, “We have to do something to reign in these out of control juries that we keep reading about in the papers and seeing on the news.” The audience began to vocally agree and continued the nodding while they ate their lunch. Next, Mr. Lees said, “We need the congress to write some laws to protect us from these juries.” The audience nearly leapt to their feet in complete agreement. Mr. Lees then said, “We need laws written to stop these juries from convicting and sentencing so many Texas citizens to death.” The crowd was silent, they were not cheering, they were not nodding, and they looked confused. Mr. Lees said, “We need some laws to control these runaway juries.” Someone in the crowd said, “Not those juries.”

This raises a very interesting point. We, as a society, are perfectly fine with jurors sentencing a man or woman to jail, prison, or even death. That is what the jury is for, right? However, society has become increasingly uncomfortable with jurors setting the correct amount of compensation for an injured or killed victim. Why? The jury pool is the same for criminal cases as it is for civil cases. That is, the members of our society that serve on the civil juries are drawn from the same list of citizens that make up our criminal juries. The individuals that serve on criminal juries are charged with the task of determining the guilt or innocence of the defendant. Given that criminal juries often deal with whether or not someone’s liberty should be restrained; surely, civil juries are capable of determining the correct amount of recovery for which to compensate a personal injury victim. In other words, if we trust the jury to “get it right” in the criminal context, we should trust the jury equally in the civil context. This makes logical sense and, in fact, less is usually on the line in the civil case, as a person’s liberty and freedom are not implicated by the civil suit.

The right to a trial by jury is one of the finest points about our justice system. There are two adversarial sides advocating in front of a judge, and a jury of our peers determines our guilt, liability, and the amount of compensation that is needed to make an injured victim whole again. America has trusted the jury since its inception. Why the distrust now? Why only the civil juries?

The reason: insurance companies and other special interest groups have chosen to attack the civil jury system, and they have spent extremely large sums of money in an attempt to influence the amount of recovery that a jury may provide. They have worked vigorously to disseminate their propaganda and they have a direct financial interest in keeping recovery low with regards to Texas citizens. The right to a trial by jury and the right to have the jury set the amount of compensation is a fundamental right that is held by all Americans. However, in Texas, this right has started to erode (See H.B. 4). The battle has already begun and our adversaries are well-funded.

In Texas, these groups have chosen not to go after the right to a jury with a hatchet; but rather, they have used a scalpel. Piece by piece they are amputating our 7th Amendment rights. For instance, the limit on the amount of compensation that a jury can award in medical malpractice cases is just one example of where the interest groups have surgically removed part of the right to trial by jury. Interesting that the special interest groups were not fighting to put a cap or limit on the amount of years for which a jury can sentence a convicted criminal. However, they did place a cap on the amount of recovery that can be made from a liable doctor.

As citizens, we need to stand together and prevent the insurance companies, the lobbyists, the special interest groups, and/or the politicians from completely destroying the right to a trial by jury. These special interest groups seek to protect their pocketbooks, not the people. This right to a trial by jury is deeply rooted in our nation’s history and belongs to all of us. It is a moral imperative that we stand up and fight to protect our right to a trial by jury…before the jury trial becomes a thing of the past and recovery for an injured victim becomes a thing of fiction.