A package of jury reforms championed by New York State Chief Judge Judith Kaye may end up having salutary—though unintended—consequences for the administration of justice in New York City.
The reforms, which took effect January 1, aimed to cast a wider demographic net, especially in criminal trials, and to distribute the burden of jury service more fairly. Lawyers, doctors, and members of 21 other professions are no longer automatically exempt from jury service. At the same time, the state is expanding the sources of potential jurors to include the unemployment and welfare rolls as well as tax, voter, and automobile registration lists. (Other reforms, like giving judges rather than lawyers more control of jury selection, should make service more bearable for those who get called.)
A key goal of the reforms was to remedy the system's supposed bias against minority criminal defendants. But the efforts to diversify the jury pool are likely to have little practical effect on criminal justice, at least in New York City. For one thing, the vast majority of criminal cases end in plea bargains, not trials. In 1994, for example, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office reported 9,829 indictments but only 796 jury trials, or about 8 percent of the total.
Moreover, even Bronx juries—largely poor and minority—convict criminal defendants more often than not. In 1993 Bronx juries convicted in 63 percent of the cases they decided; the total citywide conviction rate was 70 percent. Bronx judges, however, were quite lenient, convicting just 43 percent of defendants in bench trials. Not surprisingly, one in four Bronx defendants opts for a trial before a judge, versus just one in 18 Manhattan defendants.
The effect of jury reform is likely to be greatest where no one was looking—on the civil side of the docket. It’s common knowledge that Bronx juries are generous, Staten Island juries are stingy, and the rest of the boroughs fall somewhere in between. The demographic differences that underlie these results suggest that the addition of some 100,000 professionals to the jury rolls in Manhattan—site of nearly half the city’s civil filings—ought to make a real difference in curbing excessive jury awards.