New American Bar Foundation study details decline of jury trials

Fewer than one in 100 civil matters are decided by juries and less than 4% of criminal cases are, a new study from the American Bar Foundation reports, even as lawyers and judges agree that jury trials tend to be fairer than many alternatives.

The study found mandatory arbitration, caps on damages, criminal sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimum sentences are among the factors that have driven a sharp reduction in jury trials over the past several decades. Increases in grants of summary judgment and dismissals also were cited as contributing to the decline.

The study found civil jury trials in federal and state courts nationwide fell from 5.5% in 1962 to 0.8% in 2013. Criminal jury trials during the same time fell declined 8.2% to 3.6%.

Judges and attorneys rank meditation as the fairest way to resolve civil cases, the study found, followed by jury and bench trials. Arbitration was found to be the least fair. Survey results also show that lawyers perceive judges and mediators, as well as the opposing parties’ attorneys, as the main sources of pressure to settle civil cases and forego trial.

“The factors that have reduced access to and use of jury trials comes at a cost to society,” said study co-author and American Bar Foundation research professor Shari Seidman Diamond. “Our laws need to safeguard citizen participation in the justice system by ensuring that jury trials don’t disappear.”

The study concludes that as fewer jury trials take place, citizens’ ability to provide feedback in the justice system is limited, which “threatens the values of a deliberative democracy.”

The study was administered by the American Bar Association’s Commission on the American Jury and surveyed 1,460 lawyers and judges from 2016 to 2019 on the importance of jury trials in the judicial process. The resulting article, “Reasons for the Disappearing Jury Trial: Perspectives from Attorneys and Judges,” co-authored by Diamond and Jessica M. Salerno, an associate professor of psychology at Arizona State University, was published in the Louisiana Law Review.

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