Maureen Hayden CNHI Statehouse Bureau
The Batesville Herald-Tribune
---- — INDIANAPOLIS – The right to a trial by a jury of one’s peers may be the cornerstone of the American legal system, but it’s being exercised with less frequency in the state’s trial courts, according to a massive report released last Monday.
Of the hundreds of thousands of civil and criminal cases that made their way through the courts in Indiana in 2012, only 1,334 cases were decided by a jury. That’s down from the 1,514 jury trials in 2010 and down from the 2,015 jury trials held in 2002.
Increasingly, cases are being disposed of in other ways, from guilty pleas and deferred prosecutions in criminal matters to mediation in civil cases.
The drop in jury trials – which reflects a nationwide trend over the last decade – is just one of the many pieces of court-related data contained in the 1,800-page 2012 Indiana Judicial Service and Probation Report posted on the Indiana Supreme Court website Monday.
The same report says more 300,000 people went to court without an attorney last year, raising concerns about the quality of justice they may have received.
It also found the number of new court filings is on the decline – as are court-generated revenues – from the peak year of 2 million new cases filed in 2008. In 2012, there were 1.6 million new cases filed.
Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Brent Dickson, who spoke to reporters about the report, said the decline in jury trials and court cases in civil matters may reflect concerns about both the financial costs of the legal system and an effort by warring parties to find another way to resolve their disputes. More people may be “realiz(ing) the wisdom of settling cases on their own terms rather than have a court impose a solution,” Dickson said.
Yet he also voiced some concern about fewer jury trials, saying it means fewer people are participating in the judicial system as jurors and that’s lessening public exposure to how the justice system works. “The jury trial is the lifeblood of the American judicial system,” Dickson said, later adding: “The public confidence in the jury system is crucial.”
Dickson also noted there were 307,612 people who went to court last year without an attorney. While they have the constitutional right to do, he said, he fears most of those people didn’t hire an attorney because they couldn’t afford it. Dickson has called for more attorneys to volunteer their time to do “pro bono” work representing indigent Hoosiers, saying every individual stepping into a courtroom should be represented by a lawyer.
The annual report is an exhaustive accounting of what goes on the trial courts in Indiana’s 92 counties. It shows, for example, that the number of mortgage foreclosure filings went up in 2012, after seeing a decline the year before. There were 33,876 mortgage foreclosures filed in 2012, up from the 30,272 filed in 2011. Still, the 2012 numbers are a drop from the peak of 45,000 mortgage foreclosures filed in 2008.
While the report shows a steady decline in the number of new cases filed in Indiana trial courts, it also shows a corresponding drop in court-generated revenues from a myriad of fines and fees, including the 50 different fees that have been imposed by the legislature on people who come through the court system. In 2010, the courts collected nearly $233 million in fines and fees. That amount dropped to $206 million last year.
The 1,800 report, divided into volumes, can be found online at www.in.gov/judiciary. A website with county level comparative data can be found at publicaccess.courts.in.gov
Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org