Contact: Meredith Dickenson or Ellen Sterner
SMU News & Media Relations
(214) 768-7654

January 9, 2002


DALLAS (SMU) -- A 16-month study of the role of juries in American society by The Dallas Morning News and The Southern Methodist University Law Review Association found that judges gave juries high marks, but that the right to trial by jury is threatened in some respects.

Parts of the study already have appeared in a series of articles in the Morning News. Recently the SMU Law Review published a special issue devoted to the Jury Study Project. Among the study’s findings:

  • Record numbers of people are ignoring jury service. In Austin, Dallas and Houston, only about one in five people summoned to jury duty actually appears.
  • A disproportionate number of Hispanics, young adults and people from low-income households are not being represented on juries.
  • Forty-one states have passed laws restricting people’s access to juries or limiting the power of juries in certain cases.
  • Federal and state judges expressed overwhelming support for juries. In fact, all of the judges prefer to have cases that are tried by juries.

The researchers say their study represents one of the most significant examinations ever conducted of the American jury system. The University of Chicago Law School conducted the last nationwide study of juries 35 years ago when it compared how often judges and juries agree or differ.

"This project provides an enormous amount of information about the operation of the jury system, particularly the legal community’s understanding of it," said John Attanasio, dean of SMU’s Dedman School of Law and the William Hawley Atwell Chair in Constitutional Law. "It will be an important resource for judges, journalists, policy-makers and scholars for a long time to come."

The impetus for the study began with Mark Curriden, a lawyer and the legal affairs reporter for the Morning News, who wanted to write a series of articles examining juries, but lacked empirical data. He approached the school about the idea of helping the Morning News on the project. Dean Attanasio recommended the staff of the student-run SMU Law Review Association. Before its completion, the study required the cooperation of three different law review staffs and three different editors-in-chief. Several members of the SMU law faculty also participated in the project.

"Not only is the study important for its scope, it also marks the first time that a law school, a law review and a news organization teamed its resources to take a serious look at a historical institution," Curriden said.

At the heart of the study are surveys of judges, jurors and juror no-shows. Curriden and Morning News reporter Allen Pusey designed a set of questionnaires with the help of SMU law professors. The first surveys were sent to every state trial judge in Texas and every U.S. District Court judge in the United States. They queried the judges on their opinions and experiences involving juries. The response rates by the trial judges are unprecedented. About 70 percent of the state judges and 65 percent of the federal judges nationwide responded.

The judges’ surveys produced a mix of positive and negative findings. A majority of the judges responded that the jury system is "fine just the way it is" or is "good" and only needs "minor work." Thirty percent of Texas trial judges and 27 percent of federal judges, however, believe that the use of jury trials should be scaled back.

Next the researchers polled a sample of Dallas County residents summoned for jury duty in March 2000 and those who failed to appear. It found an 80 percent no-show rate and large numbers of Hispanic, low-income and younger residents of Dallas County underrepresented on juries.

The researchers also examined thousands of court decisions, newspaper and magazine articles, and the record to date of scholarly information having to do with the American jury. A number of judges, law professors, social scientists, legal historians and activists were interviewed as well.

In an effort to make sense of the survey data, contributors to The SMU Law Review address several issues raised by the study, including the demographics of juries, jury reforms and attitudes judges have toward juries. The issue begins with a forward by Judge Patrick Higginbotham of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, who helped with the study by reviewing the judge’s questionnaire and by sending a cover letter to all federal judges urging them to respond. In an essay titled "Juries Rule," Attanasio summarizes some of the findings of the survey. The major finding was federal and state judges expressed overwhelming support for juries. In fact, all of the judges prefer to have cases that are tried by juries.

Other articles that appear in this special issue of the SMU Law Review include:

  • "The American Jury: A Study in Self-Governing and Dispute Resolution" by Curriden explains the framework of the study and the research mechanisms used.
  • "Reexamining the Right to Trial by Jury" by SMU Law Professor William V. Dorsaneo III looks at various legal standards used by higher courts in reviewing verdicts on appeal. Dorsaneo says that appellate courts must use great care not to substitute their views for the jury’s.
  • "Taking Jury Verdicts Seriously," by Steven Alan Childress (‘01) and "Jury Review After Reeves vs. Sanderson Plumbing Company: A Four-Step Algorithm" by David Crump (‘01) are two commentaries on the current system.
  • "Echoes of the Founding: The Jury in Civil Cases as Conferrer of Legitimacy" by Victoria A. Farrar-Myers, assistant professor of political science at the University of Texas at Arlington, and Jason B. Myers (‘01) presents a statistical model of the survey results and argues that judges who reduce the role of civil juries fail to see the system as a political institution.
  • "Is It a Short Trip Back to the Manor Farm? A Study of Judicial Attitudes and Behaviors Concerning the Civil Jury System" by Michelle L. Hartmann (‘01) breaks down the jurist data by, among other things, ideology, gender and political background to understand their attitudes on limiting the right to trial by jury in civil matters.
  • "Revisiting the Jury System in Texas: A Study of the Jury Pool in Dallas County" by Ted Eades (‘00) examines the problem of jury participation in Dallas County and ways to increase more representation of minorities and young people.
  • "Juries: On the Verge of Extinction? A Discussion of Jury Reform" by Tom M. Dees III (‘01) looks at jury reforms in Texas and other states.
  • "The Jury Consultant -- Friend or Foe of Justice" by Stephanie Leonard Yarbrough (‘01) explores the impact of jury consultants.

To order the SMU Law Review’s Jury Study Project, email