Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Changes for jurors proposed


Panel recommends they take notes, ask questions

By Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

COLUMBUS - Jurors should be allowed to take notes, question witnesses and be paid more for their time, according to a state commission.

The panel of 25 judges, lawyers, court officials and former jurors offered up 41 ideas Tuesday to improve jury trials.

"We want to encourage potential jurors to come to the court willingly, not because they got a summons," said Joseph T. Clark, a retired Fairfield County judge and the commission's chairman.

"Jurors who are called to serve ought to be given better tools to find the facts and the truth," he added.

Among other proposed changes: Have judges give jurors instructions in plain English and not legal jargon. Urge county courts to pay jurors' out-of-pocket expenses and give them bus tokens so they can get to and from court. Give jurors free parking.

The panel suggested courts offer counseling to jurors who sit through graphic and stressful trials. Employers should also get tax credits to recover costs of a worker on jury duty.

Clark handed the commission's report to Chief Justice Thomas Moyer of the Ohio Supreme Court. Moyer said many of the changes are just common sense.

"There is nothing in these recommendations that are radical or that sets us way out on the frontier of jury service," Moyer said. "Jurors must be active and they must be informed participants in the trial system."

Moyer noted that some judges and courts already allow jurors to take notes or ask questions, although the practice is rare.

He said he will propose to his Supreme Court colleagues that they make it established practice that jurors may take notes and ask witnesses questions. The court ruled in June that defendants can receive fair trials when jurors submit written questions of witnesses.

Other ideas, particularly those that cost money, would first have to pass through the General Assembly.

One recommendation would raise the maximum cap on jury fees from $40 a day to $75 a day. The tax credit idea might be a tough one to pass, given the tight state budget.

The commission stopped well short of demanding a new law that would make businesses pay workers while they serve on juries. While some employers do pay for jury duty, it's not something they have to do.

"That's an issue for the legislature to take up," said Jean Atkin, a commission member and Lucas County court administrator. "If we would make employers pay, we'd be shifting the burden to small businesses. We were sensitive of the total cost to the community."

Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Steve Martin said many of the city's large employers do pay employees' salaries and encourage workers to serve on juries. He said he liked the idea of raising jurors fees and paying their expenses.

He said the court recently convinced Hamilton County commissioners to raise daily juror fees from $7.50 a day to $19 a day.

"We've not had a big problem getting people in," Martin said. "The easier we can make it for people to serve, the more people will serve and the better off our system will be."

Not all of the ideas were quickly embraced. Clark and Moyer said the state bar association had concerns about jurors asking questions.

Clark said jurors would be allowed to ask questions only after the judge and attorneys from both sides review them. He said a judge could also bar jurors from asking any question if he or she decides it would hinder, or at least not help, the trial.

Peter Rosenwald, a Cincinnati defense lawyer, said he's not fond of jurors taking notes. He said jurors who are writing could miss important points, or write down something inaccurately.

"I would much rather have them come back and ask for a reread on something," he said. "Presumably, the court reporter is accurate."

Email shunt@enquirer.com




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