As you look out at a panel of potential jurors during voir dire, there are many things you’re likely to wonder about them. Do they have any attitudes toward your client, or people like your client? Are they likely to understand some complexity, or not? Do they support or oppose lawsuits? There is one broader question: Do they support the jury system that they’re now engaged in? It has always been possible to ask, but now thanks to some new research, there is an attitudinal scale that measures an individual’s trust in the jury as an institution: The Jury System Trustworthiness or “JUST” scale.
Researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Lincoln, Michigan State University, and the University of Nevada-Reno (Bornstein et al., 2020) developed the 23-item scale, the first of its kind, as a comprehensive and validated way to assess individual trust in juries. Applying the scale in a series of studies described in a current article in Psychology, Crime & Law, the researchers found that most Americans have a favorable view of juries, and the assumptions we might make of potential jurors dreading and avoiding their service are, for the most part, exaggerations. The moderately high ratings on the JUST scale are also positively related to attitudes toward police, authoritarianism, other psychological constructs such as belief in a just world. In this post, I will share a short version of this scale and discuss some of the implications of the new measure.
While the full scale is composed of 23 measures, the researchers found that a simplified 7-item version proved reliable as well, and for most non-academic uses, will be more parsimonious. The scale items ask respondents to agree or disagree (seven options ranging from “Strongly Disagree” to “Strongly Agree”) to the following statements about juries:
They are competent to make their decisions.
They generally care about the people they affect.
They have integrity.
Values that are important to me are also important to them.
They treat all people and groups equally.
They treat people fairly.
They treat people with courtesy.
The researchers found a moderately positive view of juries overall, with all measures averaging above a neutral mid-point in their samples. When respondents view the jury system as legitimate, they are also more likely to say they would comply with a jury summons, and more likely to support a jury trial over a bench trail.
A Difference for Civil Litigation?
So far, the researchers tested the scale only in a criminal context. It was not independently related to the verdict in either a death penalty or euthanasia case, but was heavily correlated with authoritarianism which is related to a greater chance of conviction and death sentences.
The team does raise the question of how the measure might perform differently in a civil litigation context. Interestingly, jury supporters are more likely to be conservative, with the measure being positively correlated with support for police, belief in a just world, legal authoritarianism — all measures that would be more likely to make a juror pro-defense in a civil context. On the other hand, the plaintiff is the side who wants jurors to use their powers to find liability and to award damages, so they may want people who support the jury system, and the defense might want those who are cynical toward the system. In future research, and in upcoming mock trials, it will be useful to test the measure to see which way it cuts in civil litigation.
A Measure for the Moment
Beyond the specific needs of a party, it is also clear that those working to defend and expand the jury system will also benefit from the measure. In the face of the well-known and long-term decline of the jury, having a standard and comprehensive measure of individual faith in the system is useful, as is the finding that Americans still generally support that system.
In the current times of the coronavirus pandemic, it also makes sense to measure belief in the jury system while it moves through some transitions. As courts are unsteadily moving back to in-person jury trials, the many precautions that need to be layered over that system, and the reluctance of many to show up could conceivably change those views. For courts that are studying juror reactions — and that should be every court that has the resources — the JUST scale could be useful in gauging how citizens make it through the transition back to in-person trials.
The other transition some courts are attempting is to online trials, and in that context, the scale offers another feedback resource, and potentially a tool for comparing the online to the in-person experience.
Bornstein, B. H., Hamm, J. A., Dellapaolera, K. S., Kleynhans, A., & Miller, M. K. (2020). JUST: a measure of jury system trustworthiness. Psychology, Crime & Law, 1-26. URL: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/1068316X.2020.1740222?journalCode=gpcl20
Image credit: Taken by the author, with his wife’s blocks.