6-member civil juries, higher dollar threshold OK'd Judge would hear suits below $5,000

November 04, 1992|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Staff Writer

Maryland voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment yesterday that will save taxpayers money by allowing six-member juries to hear civil trials in Circuit Courts.

Twelve-member juries had been required before.

Voters also approved an amendment that will prohibit anyone from having a jury trial in a civil suit involving matters of less than $5,000. The current minimum is $500.

Another amendment voters approved gives local governments more time to put together a plan for a charter government.

Roger A. Perkins, president of the Maryland State Bar Association, said he was not surprised that the two issues involving juries were passed by large margins. Early returns last night showed the six-member jury issue ahead by a 4-to-1 ratio and the new money threshold for jury trials leading 3-to-1.

"I think most of the people I've talked to believe the results of a six-person jury are comparable to the results of a 12-person jury," said Mr. Perkins, whose organization endorsed the measure. "It will speed up the jury selection process."

George B. Riggin Jr., state court administrator, has estimated that reducing the size of panels also would save about $400,000 a year.

Most of the savings would be realized by local jurisdictions, which pay much of the cost of juries.

The change will not affect criminal trials, which will continue to be heard by 12 jurors. But court officials also have discussed the possibility of reducing criminal trial panels, too.

The state bar association, however, opposed the measure raising the threshold for jury trials. The new law will require disputes involving less than $5,000 to be heard by judges in state District Courts.

"The downside is that there are people who sue for $3,000 or $4,000, and we think they should be able to have a jury trial if they want one," Mr. Perkins said. "Now they will be precluded from having a jury trial."

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

The constitutional amendment on charters gives a commission up to 18 months, instead of 12, to draft a charter for local government. Many officials had complained that 12 months was too little time to draft the charter, conduct hearings and schedule a referendum.

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