Empowering Jurors as Good Will Ambassadors

By United States District Judge Mark Bennett

Since my first day as a federal district judge twenty-three years ago, one of my most important goals in jury trials has been to empower jurors and to court (pardon the pun) them as good will ambassadors for our court when they go back to their local communities. I want them to sing the praises of the civil and criminal justice systems based on their unexpectedly positive experiences in the courtrooms where I am so privileged to ply my craft. I will not repeat everything I wrote in a law review last year, Reinvigorating and Enhancing Jury Trial Through an Overdue Juror Bill of Rights: A Federal Trial Judge’s View, 48 Ariz. St. L.J. 481 (2016).  But here are just a few highlights and a few new ideas.

It is important for trial judges to impart to each potential juror how importantly we value their contribution as constitutional actors in our justice system. As I remind each new law clerk: “Remember, we volunteered for our jobs, they did not.” I greet every potential juror when they walk into the courtroom with a handshake and individual welcoming comment. Of course, I don’t have my robe on when I do this, so they think I am the Walmart greeter for the federal courts. I then walk down a hallway, quickly put on my robe, and walk on the bench to formally greet the prospective jurors as their trial judge. I immediately put them at ease by asking how many were so excited to serve when they got their summons? This line always draws laughs and smiles. I then introduce everyone in the courtroom and explain their functions – because coming to the very majestic and historical federal courtroom I use can be very intimidating for first timers.

I always rise, and so does everyone in the courtroom, when the jurors enter or leave. I was watching a jury trial a few years back in federal court in D.C. to critique a lawyer friend of mine. I noticed that the judge, lawyers, and litigants did not rise when the jurors entered or left the courtroom. It was if the jurors were some necessary but rather inconvenient appendage, not participants with an elevated constitutional status. If we expect jurors to respect our system of justice, judges and lawyers need to show unyielding respect for them. That’s one of the reasons why, years ago, I installed cup-holders in the jury box, and we provide free bottled water for the jurors. It’s also why I went to great lengths, when we remodeled the courtroom, to ensure extremely comfortable seating for the jurors both in the jury box and in the jury deliberation room. I personally check their restrooms before every trial to ensure our cleaning staff has them spotless. Poorly cleaned restrooms demonstrate a lack of consideration for jurors.

Without discussing them, here is a list of other things I do to enhance the jurors experience:

  • Holding no side bars – ever (well almost never unless I ask for one which is rare – I have had fewer than 5 in the past decade)!
  • Always starting and ending on time
  • Imposing time limits in all civil cases so I can tell the jurors in jury selection exactly when the case will be submitted (if not earlier because, in my experience, no lawyers have used all their time) – so they can plan their lives.
  • Eliminating redundant, cumulative, and excessive witnesses and exhibits during the final pre-trial conference.
  • Using a jury- (and lawyer-) friendly trial schedule of 8:30-2:30.
  • Giving frequent stretch breaks every 40-45 minutes.
  • Giving each juror a complete set of final instructions BEFORE opening statements with a detailed table of contents
  • Encouraging jurors to take notes on either their personal set of instructions or in a notebook with a pen that we provide.
  • Allowing jurors to ask questions in civil cases, which dramatically increases their attention to the evidence. Their questions are almost always as good as or better than the lawyers’!
  • Telling jurors in jury selection that, after their verdict, I will “debrief” them and answer any questions I can. I also tell them that I will also hand them a letter expressing my appreciation for their service and an evaluation form in which they can evaluate the entire jury trial process, me as their trial judge, and all the lawyers in the case, as well as the jury instructions, courtroom technology, quality of snacks, etc. They are to take this home and return it, if they like, in a stamped self-addressed envelope.

Before they leave the jury deliberation room, I shake their hands again and ask, if they had a good experience, would they please tell 5 friends about how positive their experience has been. And I almost forgot, in trials of more than 3 days, I personally bake cookies or brownies for jurors. Food bribes work well!

One final thought:  My colleagues on my court are discussing giving each juror a personalized and framed Certificate of Service and Appreciation signed by their trial judge.