Jurors' web-surfing is a problem

Jurors' web-surfing is a problem.

Not because they are wasting time, but because jurors are not supposed to independently investigate the case that is being presented to them.  This month's Litigation News (an ABA publication) has a short blurb about the increasing incidence of jurors doing Internet research at home in multi-day trials.  Why shouldn't jurors be allowed to do this, you might ask?

The procedural rules that govern trials contemplate that the jurors are passive receptacles into which the lawyers pour information.  The lawyers, incidentally, are also hamstrung by procedural and evidentiary rules that govern what information can be offered to the jury and when it can be disclosed.  So jurors are not supposed to do their own “fact-finding” because that would totally subvert the tight procedural and evidentiary controls which trials are subject to (rules that supposedly optimize the search for “truth”). 

The more we control what the jury learns about the dispute in the case, the better the fact-finding result will be.  That's the theory, which is valid most of the time (i.e. you don't want jurors having access to information that is not probative and is also prejudicial).

But two things are conspiring to make it harder for the court to control what jurors learn outside the confines of the trial itself.  First, people are naturally curious and the temptation to “learn” is powerful, especially when people are confronted with the notion that they will be asked to decide the fate of someone's life, liberty or personal assets.  The idea that the jury must be totally passive, but yet fully attentive, is harder than most people in the legal profession acknowledge.

Second, the increasing prevalence of multi-day trials (which permit the juror to go home each day for several hours) combined with the pervasive ability to access information through the Internet make it very easy for a juror to succumb to the temptation to gather information independently. 

Before the Internet arose, judges would caution jurors not to read about the case in the newspaper.  But most trials weren't covered by newspapers so this really wasn't a problem; and in the high-profile cases that were likely to be covered by the press the jurors were usually sequestered for the duration of the trial.  In the world of the Internet, we are learning that mere admonishments may not do the trick.  Or another way of looking at it is that perhaps the judicial admonishment never really worked; it was the fact that the information was not so easily available  that kept jurors from doing independent research.

So, here again we have one of those situations with the Internet where it is completely changing a previously closed world, showering it with the possibility of easy access to information, and thereby disrupting the way it operates.  How long will it take the legal system to see the fundamental impossiblilty of limiting juror access to the Internet?  Probably a long time. 

When faced with a new disruptive situation, most organizations (and most people) don't try to gain insight; they try to control the problem.  So the first thing that will happen will be that the legal system will attempt to preserve the current jury system, which is fundamentally based on the idea that juror access to information can be controlled.

So how can we continue to control the information?  You could limit juror access to the Internet pretty easily if trials lasted only for one day.  Or, since most cases are small potatoes matters, it would help if not so much information was accessible on the Internet.  But the trend is clearly against either of those two things happening. 

And, the other option, i.e. letting the jurors have more control over the information that they receive, isn't likely to pop into the minds of those who have the collective power to reform the legal system.  So, something is going to have to give.  I wonder what it will be.  [Ernie the Attorney]

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