The jury is a fascinating human invention. We take for granted that juries are a fair way to decide things in this country. The “right” to a trial by a jury is absolute in criminal matters but not in civil or administrative matters. In fact, there are many kinds of actions where a jury is not an option, including arbitrations, which are required under many kinds of contracts. Nonetheless, most civil actions that go to court allow the parties to have a jury (if they want to pay for it). A jury becomes one of many unknown factors confronting the trial lawyer who is preparing for trial, and there are many variables involved in winning a case.
A trial is all about persuasion. A lawyer’s job is to marshal all the evidence and then figure out ways to persuade everyone that his side is right about what it says. Just because evidence is against his client, a lawyer does not need to concede the point. With a little mental energy, a good trial lawyer can take most evidence and turn it towards his client’s winning case. All that is required is to have the truth on the lawyer’s side. Whatever is true will win, in my view. Of course, truth is often elusive. People can look at the same evidence and see a different truth.
It is easy to see why trials are not about finding “the” truth. Once a trial is over, the parties usually are still disagreeing about the truth. Even when a jury is unanimous there will often not be finality in the minds of the participants. People don’t take losing very well. Discovery and the art of “getting ready for trial” is meant to educate the parties about the real strength of their cases. Someone can only bury his head in the sand for so long. At some point in time a lawyer and his client have to evaluate the potential for loss at trial, which has to give way to intelligent choices when someone’s livelihood or financial support is at stake. If parties can fairly assess the weaknesses of their case before trial, a settlement is better than rolling the dice. Settlements work when people are willing to admit that the truth is not so clear and reasonable minds might differ regarding the conflict at issue.
Cases go to trial only because the parties can’t adjust the way they see their case. Each side thinks the other side is crazy and that the judge and the jury are going to be on their side. The funny thing is that one thing is for certain: half of them are going to be wrong. And it is usually a rude awakening when one side suddenly realizes that wearing blinders can lead to a pretty big and unexpected shock. Like it or not, the parties must live with what the jury decided (or hope that an appeals court will come to their aid). A jury’s decision will forever change the lives of the parties. It is a heavy burden and the lawyers place a lot of weight on who gets selected to sit on the jury.
If you get a summons to jury duty, please go. Without willing jurors, our system cannot work well.
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