Not all domestic matters in Georgia can be tried by a jury. Most significantly, for instance, only a judge can try child custody issues.(1) In divorce actions, however, a jury determines whether specific items constitute marital property, or nonmarital property of a spouse.(2) The jury also equitably divides marital property between the spouses in the manner it deems appropriate.(3) Where a spouse seeks alimony, the jury decides whether to award it and in what amount.(4)
Somewhat surprisingly, even where domestic parties have the right to request jury trials, they seldom exercise that right. Historically, divorcing spouses in Georgia usually have opted for bench trials of their claims for equitable division and alimony. But should they? This article explores the pros and cons of jury trials in Georgia domestic actions.
Jury Trial Pros
Unfortunately, not all judges are created equal. Varying degrees of competency, diligence and good judgment exist among the members of the Georgia judiciary. In this state where judges run for election and obtain campaign contributions from lawyers who subsequently appear before them, perceptions of judicial favoritism can plague legal proceedings, including domestic actions. And even where none of those concerns apply, a judge’s temporary order and other pretrial rulings can leave a party with a sinking feeling that the judge already has made up his/her mind against that party on the ultimate issues for trial. Under any of the foregoing circumstances, a jury demand may offer the best, if not only means to counteract perceived negatives, since a jury and not the judge will act as the trier of fact.
Separate from issues arising from the identity of the assigned judge, the particular circumstances of a case also can benefit from the use of a jury. Generally, though not universally, juries will allow emotion to influence their verdicts more often than judges will. Where one party appears more likeable or more deserving of sympathy and/or the other party has committed morally objectionable acts, a jury more so than a judge will seek to reward the sympathetic party and punish the other party. In divorce actions, a jury is more likely than a judge to divide marital property in a greatly disproportionate manner under such circumstances.
Jury Trial Cons
The principal downsides to jury trials entail time and costs. Jury trials take longer to schedule, as judges need to allocate a block of consecutive days in jury proceedings. Additionally, jury trials generally take longer to try than bench trials, because of jury selection, the reading of jury charges, the typically-greater number of objections raised and ruled upon outside the presence of the jury, and the need to explain the law to a jury. Parties incur greater legal fees in a case tried by jury. There are additional court submissions required (proposed voir dire questions, jury charges, verdict forms, and motions in limine) as well as the extra time needed to try the case.
The other main downside to the use of a jury derives from the panel’s multiple personalities and backgrounds. Even under the most careful selection of jurors, no certainty can exist that twelve separate individuals will perform as anticipated and render the expected verdict. Equally, persons whose only knowledge of the applicable law probably stems from your trial and a judge’s single reading of jury charges will be less likely to base their findings on the proper application of the law to the facts, and on the consideration of all determinative factors which are supposed to be taken into account.
(1) O.C.G.A. § 19-9-3.
(2) Payson v. Payson, 274 Ga. 231, 232(1), 552 S.E.2d 839 (2001).
(3) See Jones v. Jones, 264 Ga. 169, 441 S.E.2d 745 (1994).
(4) See, e.g., Biggers v. Biggers, 250 Ga. 248, 297 S.E.2d 257 (1982).