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Published: Friday, 10/29/2004

Legal leader urges updates to jury trials

Robert J. Grey, who made the jury system the No. 1 priority when he took over the presidency of the American Bar Association in August, told local lawyers yesterday that jurors are the bedrock and cornerstone of democracy.

Mr. Grey, a lawyer from Richmond, Va., told about 50 members of the Toledo Bar Association that allowing jurors to take notes and ask questions of witnesses are among the ways to bring the jury system into the 21st century.

"We thought [the jury system] important enough to put it in the Constitution. This is not an afterthought. It is a foundation of our system of government - the way our society relates to itself, " said Mr. Grey, who was the keynote speaker at a bar association conference at Sylvania Country Club.

The focus of the Bench/Bar conference for lawyers and judges was the emerging phenomenon of the decline in jury trials in the country.

In response to a public opinion poll that Americans have a profound belief and trust in the jury stem, Mr. Grey announced an initiative aimed at improving the call to jury duty when he took over the one-year presidency.

Mr. Grey said decisions made by jurors affect businesses, the lives of others, and policies in the country, and for that they should be given respect.

"We should say to ourselves and members of our community, we trust you," Mr. Grey said.

"As we look at the opportunity to improve the jury system, let us bring them to the 21st century," he said.

The conference examined the causes and effects in the decline in jury trials throughout the country, and what, if anything, the legal profession should be doing about it.

In September, The Blade reported that jury trials in Lucas County Common Pleas Court have plunged nearly 40 percent since 1997, but the number of civil complaints filed in the court increased about 10 percent during the same period.

According to legal experts who spoke yesterday, a similar trend has emerged nationally.

Stephan Landsman, a nationally recognized expert on the civil jury system who teaches law at DePaul University in Chicago, used data that echoed a similar pattern that emerged in the federal courts.

The vanishing trial data of Mr. Landsman included an analysis commissioned by the American Bar Association, which showed a 40-year decline in the number of jury trials in the federal courts.

"We were trying fewer cases in 2002 than we were in 1962," he said. "In other words, trials seem to be going away."

U.S. District Court Judge David Katz, a speaker at the event, said a similar trend has emerged in federal court in Toledo.

Judge Katz said he presided over 25 jury trials in his courtroom during his first year on the bench in 1994, compared to four cases so far this year.

"I do not view it as a problem," Judge Katz said.

He believes there are many reasons for the decline in jury trials, including efforts to mediate or arbitrate cases after complaints have been filed.

The judge also said parties are frightened at the cost of litigation and the stress felt by parties when a case is tried.



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