Should Illinois Jurors Be Allowed to Question Trial Witnesses? Illinois Supreme Court Rules Committee Considers New Proposal

Illinois lawyers and judges are considering expanding juror’s roles in the trial process. Currently jurors take a fairly passive part in the trial process itself as they sit and listen to each side present his or her case. It is only when it is time to weigh the evidence and come to a decision that jurors are allowed to actively participate. However, the Illinois Supreme Court Rules Committee is considering a proposal that would increase the role of jurors in the trial process itself.

On May 20, 2011, the Rules Committee is holding a hearing in Chicago, Illinois, to consider the proposal that jurors be allowed to submit written questions for the various witnesses. The jury’s questions would not be given directly to the witnesses, but would be filtered through the judge and trial attorneys. The judge would read each written question to the lawyers in a closed session, giving the attorneys an opportunity to object.

The trial judge would then take these objections into consideration while ruling on whether or not to allow each question to be read to the intended witness. If the judge decides to allow the juror’s question, he also has the option to either read it as written, or to modify it as he sees fit. Once the judge has made his decision, then either the judge or one of the lawyers would be responsible for reading the question to the witness during the trial, with both the plaintiff and defense attorneys being given the opportunity to ask the witness follow-up questions.

Currently, Illinois jurors are passive listeners for the majority of the trial process, allowed only to consider the testimony and evidence presented to them as they follow the judge’s instructions when weighing the evidence. It is only at the very start of the trial, during the jury selection process, or at the very end of the trial, during the jury deliberation, that they are allowed any voice in the courtroom. Likewise, jurors are only allowed to speak to each other about the trial after all the evidence has been presented and the judge has read the jury instructions.

While there is currently no set Illinois Supreme Court Rule that sets out a procedure for jurors to ask questions in civil lawsuits, there is also no rule prohibiting judges from enacting their own procedure. While only a few judges have instituted a jury questioning process, there are a handful of federal and state judges who have begun to allow jurors to ask witnesses questions during the trial process.

Some lawyers and judges in favor of the jury questioning process believe it will help engage jurors in the trial because it would give jurors a chance to become more actively involved in the trial process itself. The idea being that if jurors have a part in shaping the oral evidence that they will be inclined to listen more carefully to both the testimony and evidence presented.

However, opponents of the new proposal have suggested that allowing jurors to submit questions to each witness could unnecessarily extend the length of jury trials. At a time when many consider the trial process too long to begin with, adding yet another procedure to the process could extend the time needed to try individual cases and decrease the number of cases that could be heard in a given year.

In an attempt to see what the juror question proposal would look like in action, some judges have elected to participate in a pilot program that looks to evaluating the pros and cons of jurors questioning the witnesses. Both Chief U.S. District Judge James F. Holderman and Illinois Appellate Justice Warren D. Wolfson have participated in the pilot program; presumably their findings will be considered as Illinois debates whether or not to enact this practice.

Those interested in participating in this debate can attend a Chicago hearing of the Illinois Supreme Court Rules Committee on May 20, 2011. The 10:00 a.m. hearing will take place in Room C-500 of the Michael A. Bilandic Building, located at 160 N. LaSalle Street in Chicago. The hearing will consider whether the proposal to allow jurors to question witnesses and is expected to inspire a spirited debate both in favor and opposed to the new rule.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling Illinois civil jury trials for more than 35 years in and around Chicago, Cook County, and surrounding areas, including Clarendon Hills, Alsip, Hanover Park, Chicago’s Bridgeport, Antioch, and Rosemont.

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