Feb. 25, 2016 -- U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of Texas Lee H. Rosenthal discussed what she sees as a disturbing national trend in the decline of jury trials as part of a lecture series last week at the University of Houston Law Center.
Rosenthal’s talk, titled “Speeding Towards This Century: Can the Federal Trial Courts Keep Up?” was the second of four sessions of the Judge Ruby Kless Sondock Lectureship in Legal Ethics Jurist-in-Residence program.
Rosenthal said there were 396,000 filings in federal courts in 2010 compared to 374,600 filings in 2015 and noted that she has seen the pattern mirrored in her court. While bench trials have remained consistent, there were 162 jury trials in 2010 compared to 134 in 2015.
“A lot of worry should be spent on this trend,” Rosenthal said. “Every year has seen a decline. Each judge is handling fewer cases today than they were five years ago. The greatest decline is in criminal felony filings but there is a decline in civil cases as well.
“Trials really matter. Without full trials and the results that they produce, we don’t get the cases that shape our law. We don’t get the important, well-thought out precedents that shape our common law, our statutory law, and our Constitutional law.”
The lack of jury trials is also a cause for concern for Rosenthal, because it means fewer laypeople learning about the law.
“Jury participation is by far the best way to educate citizens about the law, why they should care, and why they have a stake in our courts,” she said. “We need jurors who push back and say, ‘I was on a jury and it was a fabulous process.’ We don’t get that if we don’t have jury trials.”
Rosenthal suggested making trials more economically feasible and judges taking a more active role in cases could help increase jury trials.
Rosenthal was appointed to the federal bench in 1992 by President George H. W. Bush. She previously worked as a partner at Baker & Botts, where she tried civil cases and handled appeals in the state and federal courts. She received her undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Chicago. She is also an adjunct faculty member of the Law Center.
Future speakers in the Sondock lectureship include U.S. District Judge George C. Hanks of the Southern District of Texas on March 21 and Texas Supreme Court Justice Jeffrey V. Brown on April 18. The first speaker in the series was Chief Judge Robert A. Katzmann of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in January.