6 jurors sometimes enough? Is a trial always necessary? Voters decide Tuesday

October 28, 1992|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Staff Writer

The traditional 12-member jury may be replaced by panels of six for civil trials in Maryland if voters approve a state constitutional amendment on the ballot in Tuesday's election.

Another ballot issue would deny jury trials in state civil cases involving disputes of less than $5,000. Currently, a jury trial can be sought in circuit courts if the amount in controversy is $500 or more.

The two measures are aimed at unclogging the civil dockets and saving money on juror costs.

George B. Riggin Jr., state court administrator, said Maryland is one of only nine states that still require 12-member juries for civil trials.

He estimated that reducing panels to six members would save about $400,000 a year. Most of the savings would be realized by local jurisdictions, which pay much of the costs of juries, he said. In addition, the change would speed up civil cases.

"We believe there's a substantial advantage to the system itself in the time it would save for jury selection," Mr. Riggin said. "You would have to bring fewer people in for jury duty."

"People won't be called as often for jury duty because they won't need as large a panel," notes Janet Stidman Eveleth, a spokeswoman for the Maryland State Bar Association, which voted overwhelmingly last week to support the measure.

Ms. Eveleth added that proponents were encouraged by the success of six-member juries in federal civil trials.

One concern, however, is that minorities would have a smaller chance of having their peers sit on juries in civil disputes, said Roger A. Perkins, president of the state's bar association.

The change will not affect criminal trials, which will continue to be heard by 12 jurors. But, Mr. Riggin said, court officials continue to discuss the possibility of reducing criminal trial panels, too.

"The question of whether this should be for both civil and criminal was kicked around, but the decision now was to go only with civil," he said.

Although the six-juror issue would break tradition in the state, it seems to have generated little controversy.

Far more debate has centered on raising to $5,000 the amount eligible for a jury trial. The measure would cause disputes involving less than $5,000 to be tried by judges in Maryland's district courts. Civil jury trials are conducted only in the state's circuit courts.

The district courts, created by a 1970 constitutional amendment, handle civil claims of $2,500 or less and criminal cases involving sentences of three years in prison or less. Circuit courts handle larger disputes and more serious crimes.

The state bar association and the Legal Aid Bureau of Maryland oppose the higher requirement.

The measure has been endorsed by Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy and the state judiciary.

"This whole matter has been folded in with an effort to keep some cases in district courts," said Robert W. McKeever, deputy administrator of the Administrative Office of the Courts.

More than five times as many civil cases were filed in district courts than in circuit courts in fiscal 1991, the latest period for which figures were available.

In district courts, 767,894 cases compared with 137,077 cases in circuit courts. More than 70 percent of civil district court filings were landlord-tenant cases.

Mr. McKeever said he did not know how many circuit court cases would be affected by the amendment, but he said the lower courts would be able to handle an increased load because they dispose of cases faster.

Del. Michael R. Gordon, a lawyer who sponsored the House version of the amendment, said he has seen too many minor cases delayed unnecessarily in circuit courts when a party asks for a jury trial.

He said those cases would be tried more quickly in district courts.

"If you have a small personal-injury case that's worth between $3,000 and $4,000, it's not cost-effective for the state to go through the expense of a jury trial," Mr. Gordon said.

"We need to take smaller cases out of circuit court. The vast majority of small claims cases will be resolved quickly in district court."

Mr. Perkins, the bar association president, said he broke a tie vote on his board to oppose raising the jury amount to $5,000 from $500.

"Increasing it tenfold was just an excessive increase," Mr. Perkins said. "For some people, $3,000 or $4,000 is a lot of money. If they want a jury trial, they should be entitled to a jury trial."

Charles H. Dorsey Jr., executive director of the Legal Aid Bureau, said the change would whittle away the constitutional right to a jury trial. He added that the proposed amount far outstrips the rate of inflation.

Before the district courts were created, Mr. Dorsey said, disputes involving as little as $5 could be heard by a circuit court jury. The amount has remained $500 since 1970, he said.

If voters approve the measure, he said, Louisiana would be the only state with a higher threshold for bringing a civil claim to a jury. He added that 43 states have no requirement.

"On the surface, it might seem like a sensible thing to do, but it doesn't make any sense at all," Mr. Dorsey said.

Those on both sides of the issue acknowledged that any lawyer handling a small claim who wants a jury trial would be able to skirt the amendment by inflating the value of a lawsuit beyond the $5,000 threshold.

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