April 5, 2012

Illinois High Court Allows Jury Questions in Civil Trials

by Levin & Perconti

Movies and TV depictions of lawyers and trials usually present the same picture; attorneys sitting at tables facing the judge, witnesses next to the judge, and jurors on the side. Throughout the trial jurors remain silent, sometime jotting down notes, often looking at witnesses and attorneys but never actively participating the process. Our Illinois medical malpractice lawyers know that it many basic ways, this depiction is entirely true.

However, one part of that process may soon be different thanks to a new rule from the Illinois Supreme Court. As reported this week in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin (subscription required), the state’s high court approved a rule on Tuesday that will allow jurors to submit questions of witnesses during civil trials. Illinois medical malpractice cases are civil trials that may be affected by this new process.

According to the new rule, the judge in the case will be able to determine whether or not jurors will be allowed to submit questions in each individual case. Even then, the questions will not be a free-for-all. Instead, jurors will have the option of submitting written questions of witnesses after the attorneys have had the opportunity to finish their direct and cross examinations. Per the terms of the new rule, after a juror submits questions, the attorneys from both sides will meet with the judge (outside of the jury’s presence) to view the questions and issue any objections to the queries. Judges will listen to the arguments presented by the attorneys and decide whether to allow, modify, or exclude the questions. The new Supreme Court Rule 243 will take affect this summer—July 1st.

Our Chicago medical malpractice attorneys know debate about the pros and cons of allowing increased juror participation have been raging for quite some time. Illinois would certainly not be the first to try this practice, as courts at various levels across the country have already tried these methods. In issuing the new rule, the Supreme Court’s Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride explained that ‘based on the comments of those who have used or seen the procedure at trials, such a rule enhances juror engagement, juror comprehension, and attention to the proceeding.”

Technically, in the past this process was never prohibited. However, this rule for the first time specifically authorizes the practice in Illinois courts for civil trials. For a wide range of reasons, this will not apply to criminal cases where liberty issues of the defendant are at stake.

Supreme Court Rule 243 was a long time coming, as officials have been debating the measure for months. Last year there was a hearing in Chicago where lawyers and judges offered testimony on the proposal to the Illinois Supreme Court Rules Committee. The chairman of the committee explained that the group wanted to carefully consider the measure to ensure that the rule “fostered neutrality and benefited both jurors and attorneys.” It will be interesting to see how this new rule applies in future cases. There are a range of legal and strategic implications that may be involved in how the questions affect the conduct of attorneys in the middle of a civil trial.

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