Ronald L. Sandack
Ronald L. Sandack
Kelly McGuire Burke
Kelly McGuire Burke

SPRINGFIELD — A last-minute attempt to cut the number of jurors from 12 to six in civil trials in the state’s circuit courts is one step closer to becoming law.

An initiative of the plaintiff-friendly Illinois Trial Lawyers Association that’s opposed by a prominent defense bar group, Senate Bill 3075 passed the House on Tuesday and today cleared the Senate Executive Committee.

It would halve the size of all civil juries while hiking juror pay to $25 for the first day of service and $50 a day thereafter.

Thursday is the scheduled end of the veto session — the last chance for legislative action this year. Next month, a new governor and lawmakers will be sworn in.

The measure will head to the full Senate chamber despite concerns about jury diversity and some forceful objections from Republicans who argued it wasn’t vetted and amounts to a “parting gift” for the influential trial lawyers group from outgoing Democratic Gov. Patrick J. Quinn, who lost last month’s election to Bruce Rauner.

Illinois currently utilizes 12-member juries in most civil cases. It uses six-person panels only when the claim for damages is $50,000 or less, unless one of the parties requests a 12-person jury.

State law also currently sets a pay scale for jurors based on county populations, with the smallest counties required to pay jurors at least $4 a day and the largest mandated to spend at least $10.

County boards can set higher rates. Cook County currently pays jurors $17.20 per day.

But that’s not nearly enough, said Joseph A. Power Jr. of Power, Rogers & Smith P.C., who testified for the trial lawyers group in favor of the bill.

“I just think it’s a terrible thing that we’re still paying $17.20,” he told the Senate Executive Committee today. “It’s a fairness issue.”

But Sen. Mattie Hunter, a Chicago Democrat, said she is troubled by the possibility that fewer jury slots could mean a reduced presence for minority jurors.

“I just think the diversity issue is real and very legitimate, and I’m concerned if you reduce the jury (size), you’re going to reduce the number of minorities that sit on that jury,” she said during the hearing.

Power and others said raising the pay and reducing the number of jurors in civil cases would bring Illinois in line with the federal system and 38 other states.

They also say the measure would cut down on the length of voir dire, reduce litigation costs and offset the pay bump for jurors whose stipends don’t always cover basic costs such as food and parking.

Additionally, it would make citizens more willing to participate, said Rep. Kelly McGuire Burke, a licensed lawyer and Evergreen Park Democrat who sponsored the bill in the House.

“By utilizing six jurors, fewer citizens will be called for service, fewer families will have their routines disrupted, fewer businesses will lose productivity,” Burke said on the House floor Tuesday. “By being called upon less often and being compensated better, jurors will be more willing to serve.”

GOP representatives in the House derided the bill, saying Burke didn’t ask the major bar groups for input and that she lacked proof the reduction in jury size would compensate for the pay increase.

Rep. Ronald L. Sandack, a Downers Grove Republican, also called the quick turnaround on the legislation — which was assigned to the House Judiciary Committee the day before Thanksgiving — “beyond suspect.”

“It’s brought right now as a favor to the trial bar and the trial bar lawyers in the waning days of the Quinn administration as a parting gift,” said Sandack, a partner at Gaido & Fintzen.

He concluded later: “This is the kind of bill, at this time, that gives our state the utter disrespect we unfortunately deserve. It’s a bad bill, timed poorly because it’s a parting gift and no more.”

John D. Cooney, president of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association, could not be reached for comment.

David H. Levitt, president of the Illinois Association of Defense Trial Counsel, said his group doesn’t mind increasing jurors’ pay. But it opposes reducing the number of panelists to six.

“Some of the research suggests that when you have only six people, you have some different consequences. One is there’s less debate,” said Levitt, whose group sent a letter to lawmakers this week asking them to vote against the measure.

“A strong personality among six has a lot more of a possibility of dominating a jury discussion than if you had 12. … It basically makes jury verdicts more likely to be erroneous and more likely to be swayed by more emotion (or) one dominant person.”

The top lobbyist for the Illinois State Bar Association, James R. Covington III, said there “wasn’t enough unanimity” among members for the group to take a position on the idea.

A spokesman for Quinn said the governor will “carefully study the bill” if it reaches his desk.