illustration by James Steinberg
Two years ago California attorneys from the plaintiff and defense bars - in an uncommon alliance - ushered in the Expedited Jury Trials Act of 2010. Despite the initial fanfare, proponents are now worried that one of the state's most creative ways to ease the courts' backlog is being ignored.
Advocates for the program estimate that roughly 100 expedited jury trials (EJTs) have been disposed since January 2011, based on anecdotal data (the Administrative Office of the Courts only began to assess the program's success last month). According to Los Angeles County, 40 EJTs have been carried out, and in San Francisco County, officials estimate there have been about 13 such trials.
Despite the many threats facing California's courts, aspects of the program can be off-putting for lawyers - particularly the time constraints and lack of opportunity to appeal - and the new procedures are unfamiliar.
"It's hard for attorneys to just start using it," says Paula Hannaford-Agor, director of the Center for Jury Studies with the National Center for State Courts and coauthor of a study on summary jury trial programs. "Right now attorneys [in California] are still saying, 'What is this creature, and am I committing malpractice by even thinking of using it?' "
California's expedited jury trial program is generally based on the successful summary jury trial programs in South Carolina and New York. These trials are designed for speed: Parties have 15 minutes for voir dire, and only eight jurors are selected; each attorney's case is limited to just three hours; and, critically, verdicts essentially cannot be appealed.
When compared to New York's program, California's is arguably off to a slow start. Empire State courts conducted 113 summary jury trials in the first year alone, and in 2011 they disposed of 566 cases that way. Some of this success may be thanks to Bronx County Supreme Court Judge Lucindo Suarez, who acted as statewide coordinator for the program and traveled from Lake Erie to the Bronx to spread the summary jury trial gospel. In California, the AOC never considered a statewide coordinator position.
Others speculate that the contentious nature of California's bar has kept the program from succeeding. In particular, insurance carriers - often the defendants in the types of cases ripe for expediting - have hesitated to agree to EJTs, according to attorney Daniel M. Dembicer, who tried the first EJT in Los Angeles County and "loved it." However, he has been unable to persuade an insurance company to agree to another one since. "Anything that makes litigation easier on any level, the insurance companies don't like," says Dembicer.
Michael P. Maguire, whose insurance staff counsel have handled more than a dozen EJTs for State Farm, rejects the idea that carriers are to blame. He believes that everyone, including insurance companies, have much to gain from a speedy trial. "Most of the stakeholders are interested," he says. "It's the lawyers who are afraid to try something new."
Still, LA Superior Court Judge Mary Thornton House, who chaired the working group that drafted the law, insists she isn't worried about the program's future. Although "buy-in" has lagged in LA County, House says, the number of expedited jury trials held there is still impressive. "I think about mediation: It was so pooh-poohed for so many years, and that's all we do now," she says.