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Indiana Judges Association: Instructions in plain language a natural next step

John Pera
August 4, 2010
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IJA-Pera-JohnThe Judicial Administration Committee of the Judicial Conference of Indiana began conducting research on jury reform in 1997. At approximately the same time, the Indiana Supreme Court organized citizens, attorneys, and judges to form the Citizens Commission for the Future of Indiana Courts. The commission obtained grant funding to study the jury system and formed the Juries for the 21st Century Committee to collect data and information on jury procedures.

The recommendations of both the Judicial Administration Committee and the Citizens Commission resulted in new jury rules for Indiana effective Jan. 1, 2003, covering jury pool formation, selection, and management. The objectives of the new rules were to promote consistency in jury procedures throughout the state, to improve efficiency within the jury system, to require all qualified citizens to serve with few exceptions, to promote diversity in the jury pool and the trial jury, and to assist jurors in understanding the issues, evidence, and trial process.

To help local courts implement these new rules, Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard established the Jury Committee of the Judicial Conference of Indiana in 2002. The Jury Committee developed a standard orientation program for jurors pursuant to the new rules and it continues to respond to questions from local courts and to recommend improvements to the jury system. In 2003, the Jury Committee worked with a local production company to produce a standard jury orientation video entitled “Indiana Jury Service: Duty, Honor, Privilege,” which is available to all Indiana courts at no cost and is also available to the public on the Internet at http://www.in.gov/judiciary/juryduty/. This video was updated in 2008.

The Jury Committee also worked in partnership with judicial and executive branch agencies on the state’s Jury Pool Project, which provides to local courts a jury master list containing information from both the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and state Department of Revenue. The first list was released in the fall of 2005, and the project team continues to improve the list based on local court feedback. This new master list is more inclusive of Indiana’s citizens than ever before and has decreased the amount of undeliverable mail sent to prospective jurors. In 2006, the Indiana Supreme Court received a Special Merit Citation from the American Judicature Society and the Indiana Civil Liberties Union’s Sigmund Beck Award for this project.

After these incredible improvements in the ways that citizens are called to be jurors and their management when they get to the courthouse, the next logical step was to improve the information given to juries about the specifics of the trials in which they participate – the jury instructions.

The responsibility for this falls under the purview of the Indiana Judges Association Instructions Committee. Beginning in the fall of 2008, the Civil Instructions Committee – one Court of Appeals judge and 12 trial court judges from all over the state comprise the committee – reviewed research about legal language and juror comprehension, learning that disorganized and jargon-heavy instructions do an utterly inadequate job of informing jurors of what they are to do. I vividly recall having spoken with a very intelligent, college-educated presiding juror in a civil case, who described the jury instructions as “convoluted” and at times “incomprehensible.” Many others no doubt have had similar exchanges with those who serve on our juries. It was apparent that the language of the law, common and comfortable for lawyers and judges, was not getting the job done when the same language was used to communicate with lay persons upon whom we place the responsibility to fairly decide the outcome of civil lawsuits.

The product of these efforts, spanning nearly two years of countless hours of work, is the forthcoming publication of the new Indiana Model Civil Jury Instructions, written in plain English, to be published in the coming weeks by Lexis. Plain English involves using the simplest, most straightforward way to express an idea to our juries to increase comprehension, compliance, and satisfaction with the jury process.

With the help of Elizabeth Francis, PhD., a University of Nevada English professor and faculty member at the National Judicial College in Reno, the committee focused on clearly identifying the parties, omitting unnecessary words, using active voice and understandable vocabulary, keeping sentences short, and organizing ideas in a logical sequence. The committee attempted, however, to maintain the use of irreducible words (such as “liable”) and to avoid false economy by fully explaining important ideas, rather than giving them short shrift. Some new instructions use examples or illustrations to explain especially difficult concepts.

The Indiana Model Civil Jury Instructions will be introduced to the judiciary at the Judicial Conference of Indiana Annual Meeting in September. To introduce members of the bar to them, the Indiana Judges Association will sponsor seven CLE-approved, three-hour seminars during October at Merrillville, South Bend, Fort Wayne, Evansville, Jeffersonville, Plainfield, and Indianapolis. Each seminar will be presented by four Civil Instruction Committee members. We hope members of the bar will take advantage of the seminars to learn about this important development in Indiana law. Online registration begins Aug. 16 at https://ijc.wufoo.com/forms/say-what-seminars-2010/.•

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The Hon. John R. Pera is chief judge of the Lake Superior Court, a judge in the Civil Division, chair the Civil Instructions Committee and secretary-treasurer of the Indiana Judges Association. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author.

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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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