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Press Release: Legal Lines with Locke Meredith

Guest: Judge Time Kelley

Show # 93

Attorney Locke Meredith interviews Judge Tim Kelley of the 19th Judicial District Court, twelve years and counting.  Judge Kelley is going to talk about a major issue he is concerned with: participation in the jury system.

Judge Kelley went to undgraduate school at Cornell then graduated from LSU Law School in 1983.  He worked for the Supreme Courts, then for Philip Stoneburb, and then he opened up his own firm with David Gary.  In 1996, Judge Kelley ran for Judge, won, and then ran again in 2002 and won again, and has now been on the bench for about twelve years.

As a judge for the 19th JDC, Judge Kelley works on the trial level.  Judge Kelley describes this as the “hands-on work.”  At this level are both civil and criminal cases.  Judicial Court Judge are general jurisdiction judges, meaning they are qualified to handle anything, however, usually JDC judges choose, based on seniority, to take either criminal or civil and stick with it.  Civil cases are between two private parties, disputing who owes who money.  These cases are granted a jury if the disputed amount is more than $50,000.  Criminal cases are quite simply the state against the accused.  Being the second largest district in the state, the case load that the 19th JDC handles is huge, with between five and seven thousand active cases in the civil department alone.

Judge Kelley explains the difference between the trial court (district level) and the Appellate level.  Ninety percent of cases are decided by a trial judge or a jury.  The cases that do make it to Appellate court are not tried in a courtroom.  Appellate level cases are decided by strictly looking at the records of the cases, the paperwork, and such.  This is compared to, for example, a bench trial or judge trial, which an expedited process with no jury, and simply the judge making a decision after being presented the facts by the attorneys.

In trial court, attorneys will submit depositions, which are sworn testimonies by witnesses who either couldn’t or didn’t need to come to court.  These are either written or in video form.  Judge Kelley says that probably ninety-nine percent of the time, he will arrive at his decision about a case right there in the courtroom, having already seen all the evidence and depositions.  Even if the disputed amount is more than fifty thousand dollars, typically inciting the need for a jury, if the two parties agree on wanting only a judge trial, this can occur.  Jury trials take longer, so a time constraint may induce this.

The jury is where Judge Kelley says the pubic comes in.  He says that as members of the great United States of America, we are only asked to serve our country in two ways: war service in times of war and jury duty.  Judge Kelley and Meredith both stress that jury duty is an essential part of the American democratic process.  In a recent capital murder trial, only one third of the two hundred notices brought people in to court.  Judge Kelley expresses how important it is for people to take part in this service to their country, and that we, the public, have the fate of our citizens in our hands, if we will rise up and fulfill this duty.  Judge Kelley explains how hard it is to find twelve unbiased jury members who will make a decision based not on prejudices, but in an unbiased way.  These jurors are brought through panels and not only selected for one trial.  Judge Kelley explains that the 19th Judicial District Court needs about eight to ten juries of twelve each week.  This means there is a huge demand for jurors, furthermore increasing the importance of showing up for jury duty.

Next, Meredith has Judge Kelley walk us through the process of what to do when you get your jury duty summons in the mail.  You follow the instructions and how up where the summons calls you, which will typically be big auditorium, where you will gather with the other people who have also been summoned.  Here, summoned potential jurors will be oriented and explained the qualifications to be a juror.  Qualifications include: resident of the veteran’s parish for at least one year, citizen of Louisiana and the United States, eighteen years old, able to read, write, and understand English, and not indicted or convicted of a felony and awaiting trial.  If you meet all qualifications, you are broken down into “panels” of thirty-six to forty- eight people, forty-eight for criminal, and thirty-six for civil, and assigned to a judge who has indicated ahead of time that they will need a jury that day or the next day.  If the trial that you are on the panel for, is not going to go forward, whether it been continued, settled, or the defendant in a criminal case is a pleaded guilty, you will be released for the week.  If you are needed in court, you will be questioned by a judge and the lawyers, and then, if selected to be on the jury, you will serve from two to five days in court.  Attorneys also will put together a series of questions for the jury candidate that can help expedite the selection process.

In the case where jury selection is tight, jurors are chosen for criminal cases first.  Criminal cases and civil cases alike give attorneys liberty to challenge a potential juror’s level of bias, known as a “challenge for cause,” which can remove a potential juror from being chosen.  In civil cases, each side gets six challenges, whereby they can remove any six potential jurors from being selected, so long as it is not based on race or gender.  Thirteen jurors are chosen, with one serving as alternate in case one of the others gets sick.

Next, Judge Kelley talks about the new courthouse being built in downtown Baton Rouge.  It is eleven stories, and a one hundred and seven million dollar project.  Judge Kelley explains our district’s need for a secure courthouse, and this new one, he says, is exactly that.  Separating the general public from the staff, from the prisoners, with a separate elevators for the prisoners.  The new courtroom will have three hundred thousand square feet of space, with twenty-eight courtrooms, plenty of room for the growth in cases after Katrina, Judge Kelley says.  The courtroom is supposed to be done, at the latest, by June 2010.