Panel considers 6-person jury
By Diana Leone
Advertiser Staff Writer
Hawai'i lawmakers may consider legislation next year that would reduce the standard size of a jury from 12 to six people for civil trials and minor criminal trials in state courts.
An 18-person committee of judges, lawyers and community members will study the issue and report its findings to the Hawai'i Supreme Court, Legislature and governor in time for the 2010 Legislature.
The study committee will look at potential cost savings as well as "issues of constitutionality, of the perceived rights and benefits of a traditional 12-person jury, and of functional equivalence," according to an American Judicature Society statement.
Potential legislation under consideration by the Hawai'i study committee would propose to amend Article I, Section 13 of the state Constitution, relating to jury trials, the release says.
The Hawai'i Supreme Court requested the study, said James Burns, a retired chief appellate judge and chairman of the American Judicature Society's Hawai'i Chapter.
Burns said the society's state chapter has done studies on other judicial issues in the past and presented its findings to the Legislature and Judiciary for possible action.
The panel is co-chaired by U.S. District Judge David Ezra and Constance Lau, president and CEO of Hawaiian Electric Industries and chairwoman of Hawaiian Electric Co. and American Savings Bank. It will meet this fall as needed to accomplish its task, Burns said.
Though the impetus for the study is "severe budget restraints" on Hawai'i's court system because of the economic recession, the group will likely address all pros and cons of smaller juries, said member Richard Turbin, an attorney and former president of the Hawai'i State Bar Association.
"The American jury system is a wonderful system... one of the most important features of democracy and a civilized nation," Turbin said. "However, since trials are becoming longer and more complex, sometimes it's difficult to find 12 jurors for every case."
The Special Committee on the Jury will consider whether "it is worth converting to a six-person jury in less serious criminal cases and some civil cases, as many states have," Turbin said.
"We're studying it," Turbin emphasized. "We don't have any preconceived notions. We just want to make sure our judicial system is economical and make life a little easier for our citizens."
A 1970 U.S. Supreme Court case held that six-person juries are "functionally equivalent" to 12-person juries and therefore constitutional. However, according to an April 2008 article in the Florida Law Review, only two states — Florida and Connecticut — rely on six-person juries in serious felony prosecutions.
The article, by Alisa Smith and Michael J. Saks, argues that U.S. Supreme Court ruling should be reversed and that a 12-person jury be reinstated as the standard.
Burns noted that Hawai'i Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 48 currently allows a jury of fewer than 12 people if all lawsuit parties agree to it, and that the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 48 allow a jury of "at least six and no more than 12 members."