Thursday, May 27, 2004

Lousy Seventh Amendment...

I just spent two and a half frustrating days in jury selection (across the street from the site of California's last lynching). This is probably old hat to most people out there, but this was my first time, and the inefficiency of the jury process is really horrendous. Some number of people are called randomly to the courthouse, and a subset of those people are selected (again randomly) to be the real candidate jurors (in this case they picked about 20 out of a group of about 70). The rest have to sit through the entire jury selection process, but do nothing. If they don't get picked, they're sent home - they can't get picked for another trial. It seems crazy to me that it comes down to a binary decision on a particular case. It would be much more efficient if prospective jurors were given a more general questionnaire and then assigned to an appropriate trial.

While I'm on the subject, I feel compelled to rant about the particular case I was on. It was a civil product liability case involving some allegedly defective siding. The kicker is that the trial was estimated to take six to ten weeks. I find it extremely difficult to believe that whatever claim is being made here justifies the enormous cost of the trial - ten weeks for twelve jurors and four alternates is over three person-years of jury time alone (and they racked up the better part of another person-year with jury selection).

It's also interesting how the little slivers of information available during jury selection can shape your opinions. The lawyers asked many questions of the prospective jurors, which established pretty clear battle lines without ever laying things out explicitly - the plaintiff contends the defendant knew about defects and should have recalled the product, while the defense claims that reports of failures were not statistically significant and the siding was not installed in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions. The thing that really propelled me to my premature conclusion is that the judge said that this trial originally had 20-30 defendants, but nearly all of them had settled. Sounds to me like they're firing shots in the dark.


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