SPRINGFIELD — In a 5-0 decision, the Illinois Supreme Court has struck down a law requiring six-member juries in civil trials.
Opponents to the law, which went into effect June 1, 2015, say smaller juries are easier to convince and return higher verdicts.
“The bar’s pretty high to convince those 12 people to rule in a particular way," Travis Akin, director of Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch, told the Record. "I think the 12-member jury system protects both defendants and plaintiffs attorneys. It creates a lot of checks and balances that ... are diminished when you cut that number of people down to six.”
Akin said he is happy with the Supreme Court’s ruling.
“This is definitely a step in the right direction,” he said.
After Dr. James Kakos and his wife sued five doctors and their employers for medical negligence and damages, the defendants requested a 12-member jury at trial. But a recent amendment to the law governing the size of juries in civil cases eliminated 12-member juries in favor of six-member juries. The defendants moved to have the amended law declared unconstitutional.
Passed in 2014, the amended law changed the statute so that neither party to a lawsuit can request a larger jury. Before it was amended, the law allowed claims for damages at $50,000 or less would be tried by a smaller jury unless either party demands 12 jurors.
The change was intended to make it possible to pay jury members more for their service. Before the law was changed, counties could pay $4 or $5 per day or some higher amount. But the amended law set one rate at $25 for the first day of service and $50 for each additional day.
Akin said he supports efforts to increase jury pay.
“I think we can all agree we need more people engaged and more people willing to serve on juries,” he said. “To gift wrap the potential for higher judgments and more gamesmanship to personal injury lawyers isn’t the way to go about it.”
The case was heard by a Cook County circuit court, which ruled that the amendment violates the rights of a trial by jury and the separation of powers, making it unconstitutional. The plaintiffs appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court, alleging that the constitutional right of a trial by jury doesn’t guarantee a 12-member jury, nor does the law interfere with the court’s authority.
The Illinois Supreme Court affirmed the circuit court’s opinion, saying the language of the 1970 Constitution does call for 12 jurors. Chief Justice Rita Garman wrote the opinion. Justices Charles Freeman, Lloyd Karmeier, Anne Burke and Mary Jane Theis concurred. Justices Robert Thomas and Thomas Kilbride didn’t take part in the decision.
“The 1970 Constitution protects the right of trial by jury ‘as heretofore enjoyed,’ which means the right as it was enjoyed at the time the constitution was drafted,” Garman wrote. “While there is some flexibility within this definition, it is clear that the drafters intended for the essential common-law features of a jury trial as then enjoyed to be preserved and protected. This court has long included the 12-person size of a jury within its descriptions of the essential features of a jury trial.”
Garman continued by saying transcripts show that the constitutional drafters didn’t believe the legislature had the power to alter the number of jurors, nor did they give legislators that power.
Akin said the outcome was a bit of a surprise because it’s never easy to predict how the Supreme Court will rule on a case.
“It’s difficult to read the tea leaves,” he said.
He added that this case demonstrates the importance of the judicial branch of government.
“When you look at the magnitude of the decision — what it means for future cases, what it means for anybody who has or will have a civil lawsuit filed against them — it’s going to be affected by this decision,” he said. “Judges do matter. It’s important that we have common sense people serving on the bench. It’s a reminder that there is an awesome responsibility as citizens when we go to the polls.”