January 19, 2022
Half a century ago, the U.S. Supreme Court changed a fundamental structural component of jury trials: the number of jurors required to comprise the petit jury. In the decades since, researchers have used a variety of new analytical methods to predict potential jury size influences. They remain difficult to measure. A new NCSC report, Time to Reflect, examines jury size considerations in light of these efforts, coupled with considerations that have grown out of the COVID pandemic.
The modern legal starting point is Williams v. Florida (1970) in which the U.S. Supreme Court found that the Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury does not require a jury to consist of 12 individuals, permitting state and federal courts to decide for themselves the jury size that best meets their needs for efficient, effective justice. The decision ignited an intense debate among practitioners about the wisdom of straying from the long-standing tradition of 12-person juries.
The Williams decision also inspired researchers from a variety of academic disciplines to study the impact of reduced jury size on court efficiencies, the demographic and attitudinal diversity of juries, the dynamics of jury deliberations and jury verdicts and case outcomes. Empirical research efforts continued regularly through the late 1990s and provided an ongoing discussion in the literature outlining the advantages and disadvantages of reducing the size of a jury. Results were widely disseminated and regularly used in arguing for or against the use of a smaller jury. Ultimately, only four states opted to reduce jury size for non-capital felony cases, but 16 did so for misdemeanor cases and 17 for civil cases.
Time to Reflect reintroduces important concerns for the reduced jury size. It also examines the latest findings and presents advancements in learning as to what is lost and gained when courts elect to impanel smaller juries. Among others:
- Empirical studies report mixed findings about the cost-effectiveness of reduced jury size.
- Decreasing the size of juries reduces the likelihood that the full range of community perspectives are considered during jury deliberations.
- The number of impaneled jurors can impact group dynamics and quality of deliberations.
- Juror heterogeneity may influence hung jury rates more than jury size.
- Smaller sized juries are less likely to contain members of racial minorities.