The Miracle of Jury Reform in New York

Article excerpt

Against all odds, numerous initiatives were successfully put into place to accomplish two goals-democratizing jury service and easing juror burdens.

Accepted wisdom has it that reforming courts is like moving mountains-a Herculean task that is well-nigh impossible. The reasons are many: court atitonomy, deep-seated traditions, lethargy, cynicism, institutional fragmentation, vested interests, and just plain ineptitude. Political scientist Malcolm Feeley, after studying many unsuccessful attempts to change the functioning of courts, concluded with the following despairing words:

Scholar are finding that many innovative programs fail in their implementation. This book suggests that the picture is bleaker; the causes of failure are found at every stage of planned change. Often failure is rooted in conception, in a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature ol the problem, the dynamics of the system, the nature of the change process, and attention to detail at the service delivery level.1

It is thus truly remarkable that New York State was able to radically transform its jury system in the space of a decade. Against all odds, an abundance of initiatives were successfully put into place to accomplish two goals-democratizing jury service and easing juror burdens. We call this dramatic reconstruction of a jury system that had resisted change for a century the miracle of jury reform.2

This article analyzes how such monumental change was accomplished. Six major participants in the process were interviewed at length: Judith Kaye (Chief Judge of New York Slate), Jonathan Lippman (Chief Administrative Judge of New York State), Colleen McMahon (Federal District Court Judge and the former chair of a judicially appointed commission charged with reviewing jury service in the state and making recommendations for improvement), Judge James Lack (former chair of the New York State Senate Judiciary Committee), Chester Mount, Jr. (Director of Research and Technology, New York State Unified Court System, Office of Court Administration), and Anthony Manisero (Manager, Statewide Jury Support, New York State Unified Court System, Office of Court Administration). We also had an exchange of correspondence with Marc Bloustein, counsel for the New York State Office of Court Administration. These interviews were supplemented by a search of media coverage of the jury reform process and review of reports prepared by the courts.

The reforms

A number of reforms were put into place to expand the pool of available jurors. Master source lists were expanded and improved to include public assistance and unemployment compensation rolls.3 Special postal service lists on changes of address were incorporated into databases of prospective jurors. An automated system was put into place to help go after those ignoring jury summonses. A list of "permanently qualified" jurors, which resulted in the same individuals being called repeatedly, was abolished. Perhaps most significant of all, legislation granting automatic exemptions to 20 occupations, including pharmacists, embalmers, lawyers (including judges), and police officers, which had resulted in the removal from jury service of more than a million people statewide, was repealed.

To reduce the burden of jury service, a number of conveniences and amenities were implemented. All persons summoned to service on a particular date were given the unqualified opportunity to receive one automatic postponement to a date of their choosing within six months by utilizing a computerized telephone system. Courthouse facilities were upgraded: more telephones were installed; inspections and cleaning of bathrooms were regularized; public address systems were updated. Assistance and information given to jurors were enhanced: a new juror orientation video narrated by well-known newscasters was created; a juror handbook was published, including a statement of jurors' rights and responsibilities, as well as a glossary of legal terms; a juror newsletter (Jury Pool News), with lively stories and even a crossword puzzle, was developed to help jurors endure the boredom of waiting periods; and a juror hotline accessible by a toll-free number was put into place to field complaints and answer questions about jury service. …