Legal News & Safety Info

The Vanishing Jury Trial and What’s at Stake

During the last few decades, law journals and law reviews have published often about the national decline in jury trials.  As reported recently in the New York Times, the Southern District of New York held only 50 criminal jury trials in 2015, the lowest since 2004. And the pace has not picked up for 2016.

In 2005, records show there were more than double the number of trials: 106. And decades ago, legal experts said the numbers were much higher.

On the criminal front, scholars attribute the decline primarily to the advent of the congressional sentencing guidelines and the increased use of mandatory minimum sentences.  “This is what jury trials were supposed to be a check against — the potential abuse of the use of prosecutorial power,” the Times quoted Frederick P. Hafetz, a former chief of the criminal division of the United States attorney’s office in Manhattan.

Along those lines, in 1997, 3,200 of 63,000 federal defendants were convicted in jury trials, according to Times research using federal court data.  In 2015, there were only 1,650 jury convictions, out of 81,000 defendants.

In the civil arena, the same trait holds true: the Wall Street Journal called it last year “the pin-drop silence” of the federal courthouse.  Fewer than 1% of federal civil cases are resolved by juries these days, according to the Journal, down from 5.5% in the 1960s.

Research shows the same situation in state courts. The Journal showed that 75 largest counties in the U.S. saw a 50% drop-off in jury and bench trials from 1992 to 2005, and the trend has continued, according to state-level studies quoted in the Dallas Morning News.

The right to a jury trial in civil cases is guaranteed by the 7th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and in nearly every state constitution. But one cause for the decrease in civil trials is the heavy use of arbitration clauses in contracts, which effectively remove many disputes from the courts.

Corporations (and their lawyers) tend to maintain that arbitration saves all parties time and money. But the goal of arbitration clauses is not to expedite fairness but rather to kill a case against a company before it is even filed.

Amendments to the Constitution are not written with little forethought. The 7th Amendment right to jury trial is a crucial hinge on which many other constitutional rights rely. The right to freedom of speech or freedom of religion, for instance, is protected by the 7th Amendment. All rights are ultimately protected from government (and corporate) overreach by the fundamental right to have your claim heard in a trial by jury.

For more on the diminishing jury trial in America: The Wrong-Doer’s “Silver Bullet”: Forced Arbitration