By Richard Gabriel
Over 150 years ago, Abraham Lincoln famously ended the Gettysburg Address with: “and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” And yet the jury trial, as guaranteed by the Sixth and Seventh Amendments of our Constitution, is perilously close to vanishing from the judicial landscape.
Civil jury trials are under 2% of filed suits in federal courts and under 1% in state courts. California court budgets have lost almost half a billion dollars since 2008, closing thirty-nine courthouses and seventy-seven courts in still-open courthouses. Peter Wolff, the head of Hawaii’s federal public defender’s office, even stated that his office’s projected budget cuts will make it too difficult for his office to handle complex white collar and death penalty cases, a direct threat to defendants’ Sixth Amendment rights.
In federal courts, judges are routinely using time limits on trials and numerous jurisdictions are either studying or implementing discovery limits . In a survey conducted by the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System in 2010, approximately 80% of 6,800 attorneys and judges nationwide felt that the cost of litigation forced cases to settle for reasons other than merit. All of these increasingly frequent anecdotes beg the question: is the civil justice system like Detroit, heading for bankruptcy? If so, what would be the “Chapter 11” restructuring plan? Will reduced resources, arbitrary limits, and reactive legislation become the norm?