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Civil juries, Jury competence, Lay decisionmaking, Jury comprehension, Judge jury agreement, Lay participation in regulatory proceedings, Summary judgment trilogy, The American Jury, Chicago Jury Project, Jury reforms, Scientific and technical evidence


Civil Procedure | Litigation


Lay participation in debates concerning public policies is a touchstone of a democracy. The Constitution enshrines this value not only by providing for a system of elected representatives, but also by recognizing the right to trial by jury. When a democratic society seeks to impose the rigors of the law on an individual, it must justify those standards to a panel of citizens and allow the austere expression of the law to become infused with the values of the community. Through this process, the vision of justice shared by members of the community informs the dialogue of adjudication.

The increasing complexity of issues presented for adjudication causes some commentators to question the ability of civil juries to fulfill this traditional role. To reach a reasoned and principled judgment, lay representatives must comprehend technical information and apply the proper legal standard. In the past, concerns about the ability of laypersons to participate effectively arose in antitrust trials where civil juries encountered massive amounts of evidence and sophisticated economic arguments.

Recently, similar concerns have arisen when civil juries consider technical evidence in toxic tort and product liability cases., Such concerns are likely to become more acute with the expansion of the right to trial by jury into statutory causes of action where juries consider complex questions of damages. Questions about the competence and bias of laypersons are also raised in nonjury contexts, such as in proposals to permit laypersons to participate more fully in regulatory proceedings that require an assessment of the risks and benefits to a community.

We seek to address these concerns by reviewing the literature on jury competence with three purposes in mind. First, we hope to establish that, although the civil jury has some areas of vulnerability, its ability to render a reasoned and principled decision is far greater than typically acknowledged. Second, we wish to identify those areas in which laypersons encounter particular difficulties and suggest remedies to improve lay comprehension in these complex matters. Finally, we hope to draw upon research on the civil jury in assessing the potential for lay participation in regulatory proceedings. Thus, this Article aims to provide information about the civil jury's functioning which may be used to evaluate the claims of proponents and opponents of lay participation in a wide range of complex legal proceedings.

Publication Citation

Published in: American University Law Review, vol. 40, no. 2 (1990-1991).