Proposed amendments to the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure include a “plain language” revision of the instructions judges must give prospective jurors and jury members selected for a trial. Misc. Docket No. 10-9210, posted today on the Texas Supreme Court’s website, would amend jury instructions required by court order under Rule 226a and would amend Rules 281 and 284. Kennon Peterson, the Supreme Court’s rules attorney, says the court rewrote the instructions prescribed under Rule 226a “in plain language that jurors are more likely to understand and therefore to follow.” Justice Nathan Hecht, the Supreme Court’s liaison for rules, says there’s a lot of “legalese” in the current jury instructions. “We’re just trying to put them in plainer English,” Hecht says. Supreme Court Advisory Committee (SCAC) member Tracy Christopher (pictured), a justice on Houston’s 14th Court of Appeals, says rudimentary testing by the State Bar of Texas Jury Charge Oversight Committee found that jurors do not always understand the instructions they are given. Christopher writes in an e-mail that the State Bar committee began working on revisions in the Rule 226a jury instructions in 2006 and presented its recommended draft to the SCAC in October 2007. Among other things, the proposed revisions seek to clarify that if only 10 members of a jury agree on every answer in a jury charge, only those 10 members can sign the verdict certificate, Christopher says. Under proposed amendments to Rule 284, a judge must instruct jurors, immediately after they are selected to hear a case, to turn off cell phones and other electronic devices and not to communicate with anyone through an electronic device while they are in the courtroom or while they are deliberating. The proposed amendments to Rule 284 also require a judge to instruct jurors, while they are on a jury, not to get on the Internet to talk about or investigate the case. “They really need to know they can’t get on FaceBook, can’t get on Wikipedia,” Hecht says. The proposed revisions of the Rule 226a jury instructions also spell out the prohibitions against talking about or investigating the case online. Christopher says people are accustomed to doing their own research, but doing so while they’re serving on a jury can cause a mistrial. “We’re trying to make it overall a lot clearer to the jury what they can and can’t do,” Christopher says. The revised jury instructions also require a judge to tell jurors that they can take notes. Hecht says, “In any case of any complexity, the lawyers are taking notes, the judge is taking notes, the jurors should be able to take notes if they want to.” Proposed amendments to Rule 281 would allow jurors, with the trial court’s permission, to take their notes to the jury room. Under the proposed revisions in the Rule 226a jury instructions, the judge must tell jurors to give their notes to the bailiff for safekeeping when they leave the jury room. At the end of the trial, the bailiff will destroy the notes, according to the proposal. That’s to prevent post-trial motions to subpoena jurors’ notes, Christopher says. The Supreme Court ordered a public comment period to extend through March 4, 2011. Comments can be submitted to Peterson by mail at P.O. Box 12248, Austin, Texas 78711, or electronically at email@example.com. The rules, with any modifications based on public comments, will take effect April 1, 2011, according to the court’s order.
-- Mary Alice Robbins