COOK COUNTY — An Illinois Circuit Court judge says reducing the number of jurors in civil trials is unconstitutional, a decision that could bring the law passed late last year to the state supreme court.
Cook County Circuit Court Judge William Gomolinski overturned a new state law limiting jurors in civil trials from 12 to six, declaring it unconstitutional on Dec. 21. In a written opinion, Gomolinski said a six-person jury discredits the Illinois state constitution, and violates the separation of powers between the legislature and the judiciary.
Former Gov. Pat Quinn signed the bill last December in the waning days of his administration, after losing the gubernatorial race to opponent Bruce Rauner. The measure also raised juror pay in Cook County from $17.20 to $25 for the first day of trial, and $50 for each successive day of service.
Illinois State Rep. Ron Sandack (R-Downers Grove) called the law, which took effect June 1, a “parting gift” from the Quinn administration to the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association. The organization, which lobbies for attorneys who commonly represent injury plaintiffs, was a strong proponent of the measure.
Sandack believes the law is more favorable to plaintiffs, who have the burden of proof in a trial. In Illinois, a jury's decision must be unanimous.
“A six person jury would be easier to influence or persuade," Sandack recently told the Madison Record. "It was blatantly unfair from a civil perspective. We knew it didn’t make any sense.”
Sandack said the law also places a large revenue burden on local governments, especially in places like Cook County, where criminal trials outnumber civil trials. Although the state controls payments, it doesn’t distribute money. Counties cut the checks.
Proponents had claimed that a smaller number of jurors in civil trials means counties wouldn’t have to pay more and could even save money in the long run.
“This was all cooked with a really clever idea,” Sandack said. “We should pay jurors more, reduce the number from 12 to six, and the whole thing will be revenue neutral.”
John Pastuovic, president of the Illinois Civil Justice League, echoes Sandack’s frustration.
“While we have favored increasing juror pay in Illinois, we were against this ill-fated, lame-duck inspired law that struck diversity of opinion from Illinois civil trials,” Pastuovic said.
Gov. Rauner has said he wants to repeal the law.
Sandack hasn’t read Gomolinski’s opinion, but said he is pleased with the decision.
“I’m glad a judge has taken up this issue and given it judicial review," he said. "I never thought the process was legitimate.”
The law will now wind its way through the Illinois court system, and according to Pastuovic, will likely head to the state supreme court.
“We are certain Judge Gomolinski has probably already spent a larger amount of time reviewing the facts and implications of this major change in our civil justice system than the legislature spent thinking about it when they passed it,” Pastuovic said.