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Civil juries in Pennsylvania will be allowed to take notes

Wednesday, August 06, 2003

By Mark Scolforo, The Associated Press

HARRISBURG -- The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is about to let jurors take notes -- something that's already allowed in nearly every other state -- but only in civil trials and on an experimental basis.

Starting Sept. 1, all jurors in civil cases that are expected to last more than two days may take notes, and judges may allow note-taking in shorter trials as well. The Supreme Court will reconsider the new policy at the end of 2005.

No specific case prompted the rule change, said Art Heinz, communications coordinator for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.

"This is an issue that has been discussed by people both inside and outside the judiciary for a number of years. And the court felt that this was an appropriate time to issue an order," Heinz said.

Similar changes for criminal trials are being studied and could be considered by the state's highest court by the end of the year, Heinz said.

Notes should help jurors remember the details of complicated cases, said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Stewart J. Greenleaf, who has long sought to allow note-taking.

"Can you imagine sitting in a meeting more than two days, discussing very important facts, and never taking one note?" said Greenleaf, R-Montgomery. The most recent juror note-taking bill passed the Senate 48-1 in March and is pending in the House Judiciary Committee.

The new rules allow judges to prohibit note-taking in cases expected to last two days or less, require jurors to surrender their notes to court officials at the end of each day, direct officials to collect the notes before the verdict is read and destroy them; and mandate special instructions that include a warning for jurors to avoid giving more weight during deliberations to those with notes.

Pennsylvania had been one of a very few states with an outright ban on juror note-taking, although various states' policies vary widely and legal experts say a definitive state-by-state comparison does not appear to exist.

"Mississippi says you can take notes, but you can't take them into the deliberation room. You get all kinds of variations on the theme," said Thomas Munsterman, director of the National Center for State Courts' Center for Jury Studies in Arlington, Va.

A national trend toward looser restrictions on jurors goes back about a decade, said B. Michael Dann, a retired trial judge who led Arizona's landmark reform effort in the early 1990s.

Various states now allow jurors to question witnesses; provide for instruction in the applicable law at the start, rather than conclusion, of trials; and permit civil juries to discuss the case among themselves during breaks in the proceedings.

Dann said note-taking is the least controversial of such "active juror model" reforms.

"Recent research shows that jurors who are allowed to take notes generally are more attentive to the trial, feel more engaged, that they use and rely on their notes quite a bit and that by and large their notes are accurate," said Dann, now a visiting fellow at the National Institute of Justice in Washington, D.C.

Opponents worry that note-taking may distract jurors from focusing on the testimony before them, but Dann said "the potential for good outweighs the risk."

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