A new constitutional amendment has taken effect in Maryland that raises the stakes for people seeking civil jury trials.
Gov. William Donald Schaefer signed a proclamation Dec. 1 that allows civil jury trials only in disputes involving at least $5,000. Officials of the state's highest court called Chief District Judge Robert F. Sweeney and other judges yesterday to alert them to the new rules.
"From [now] on, anyone who wants to pray a jury trial when the amount is less than $5,000 will not be allowed to do it," Judge Sweeney said. "Anyone who sends such a complaint by mail will have the papers returned to them with instructions about the new threshold."
Before the new rules, anyone was able to request a jury trial as long as a civil dispute involved at least $500. Marylanders voted overwhelmingly Nov. 3 to raise the amount tenfold and to leave disputes involving less than $5,000 to trials by judge.
The higher threshold was opposed by Legal Aid of Marylandwhich argued that the change would rob state residents of their constitutional right to trial by jury. But supporters, including the state's judiciary, said it would help speed up civil cases and unclog court dockets.
With Maryland's new rule, only Louisiana has a higher financial threshold for convening a civil jury trial. Forty-three states have no financial requirement at all.
The new threshold here could mean that more cases will be heard in district courts, which do not have jury trials, rather than in circuit courts, which have juries and handle more serious cases.
Judge Sweeney said, however, that he does not believe the new law will significantly reduce the number of trials heard by juries.
He said people often ask for a jury only to delay a trial -- often in the hope that by the time it is scheduled to be heard, a judge they prefer will be available. Then they drop their request for the jury.
Most of the 1,500 people seeking a jury trial in District Court lasyear eventually had a trial by judge, Judge Sweeney said.
Another constitutional amendment passed by voters, which allows six-member juries in civil cases, is expected to take effect after it is reviewed by the Maryland Attorney General's office.
Robert Zarnoch, an assistant attorney general, said there have been questions about whether the six-member panels can be used immediately for all civil cases now in the system, or can hear only those cases filed after Dec. 1. The Attorney General's office plans to issue a statement about that tomorrow.
The amendment allowing juries of six people breaks with the state's tradition of requiring both civil and criminal panels to have 12 members.