THE JURY SYSTEM is being destroyed by the demands lawyers and judges are making on it. Anyone who has ever served on -- or watched or even read about -- a jury caught up in lone, complex trial will know that. For this reason the suggestion made by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger last night to the chief justices of the states should be accepted. He asked that they join in a study of whether juries should be eliminated from certain kinds of civil cases.
Chief Justice Burger is not talking about the kinds of trials that ordinarily fill the nation's courthouses -- trials in which someone is accused of a crime or is attempting to recover damages in a routine automobile accident. He thinks those cases are right for juries.
What bothers him are civil cases that go on for a month or two months -- or a year -- and which involve issues so complicated that even the lawyers who have lived with them for years have difficulty explaining what is at issue. Juries, he thinks, get lost in the complexities, bored with the endless procession of expert witnesses, and confused by the length instructions the judge inevitably gives at the end of the trial. In addition, he points out that the government is imposing too much on ordinary citizens when it requires rhem to give over a year, or most of one, to deciding a single legal dispute.
Mr. Burger is right on every count. Juries have a vital place in the administration of justice but it is not in deciding monumental disputes between corporations or difficult questions involving scientific or statistical computations which are beyond the understanding of ordinary citizens. England abolished juries in all civil cases except libel and fraud 40 years ago. While this country doesn't have to go that far yet, it is time for the judges and the legislatures at least to begin thinking about it.
There are, of course, tough problems. The federal Constitution grants a right to a jury trial in most civil cases where facts are in despute. So do many state constitutions. But the fact that the courts have always operated the way they do now doesn't mean they must go on that way. The chief justice has performed a service in focusing attention on a problem -- and doing so before some jury, somewhere, just gives up and walks out on one of those tedious interminable, and incomprehensible trials.