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The Judicial Council stirred up the controversy over reducing peremptory challenges Tuesday, worrying attorneys who say that would jeopardize their ability to empanel fair juries. Changes to the Code of Civil Procedure are still a long way off. The council’s action at its regular San Francisco meeting was merely to accept the final, 100-page report of the Task Force on Jury System Improvements. The task force hopes that reducing the number of challenges would help make jury duty more pleasant. Reducing challenges also would mean fewer people would have to be summoned to court, increasing the pool of available jurors. While acknowledging the ideas would meet resistance from many attorneys, the task force said it’s recommending the changes because of problems selecting panels. “It is the peremptory challenges that most alienate people from the system,” said task force member Justice Judith McConnell of the Fourth District Court of Appeal in San Diego. That’s because some people get offended when they’re tossed from juries for no spoken reason. Nowhere are the modern problems with jury selection more apparent than in Los Angeles, where 7,000 to 10,000 people show up for jury duty every day. But those opposed to reducing peremptory challenges say fixes can be found elsewhere. Bruce Brusavich, president of Consumer Attorneys of California, said plaintiffs lawyers would rather see businesses increase pay for employees when they get called up for jury duty. Right now, Los Angeles is so bad that judges aren’t even letting people go because of hardships, forcing plaintiffs lawyers to use up their peremptory challenges to help jurors go home because of money problems or to take care of loved ones, Brusavich said. Many of L.A.’s problems were caused by another task force recommendation, the “one day, one trial” reform approved by legislators in 1998, Brusavich said. Prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys join consumer attorneys in their opposition to reducing peremptories, although both groups said they haven’t had the chance to fully evaluate the task force’s latest ideas. The tort reform Civil Justice Association of California also hasn’t looked at the report, but generally is in favor of reducing peremptory challenges, said CJAC President John Sullivan. “In the interest of efficient trials . . . the number [of peremptories] can be lower than it often is,” Sullivan said. The task force proposes reducing peremptory challenges from 20 for each side in a death or life-sentence case to 12, from 10 to six in other felonies, from 10 to three in most misdemeanors, and from six to three in two-party civil actions. In order to change the rules on peremptories, the council would have to accept the task force’s specific recommendation and then propose legislation in Sacramento. Ray LeBov, the Judicial Council’s chief lobbyist, said there was no such bill in the works. The earliest it could even be proposed would be next year, he said. The council received a similar recommendation in 1996, but dropped the idea in the face of a difficult political battle. Although no one is suggesting a bill yet, Brusavich said it’s unlikely that even the Judicial Council could overcome Consumer Attorneys’ clout in Sacramento. Tuesday, the council also dealt with business that will demand more immediate attention than peremptories. Council members listened to another recap of budget developments from finance director Christine Hansen. She said fighting over Gov. Gray Davis’ proposal to save money by taking sheriffs out of the court-security business will soon begin in earnest. And she said a complicated juggling of the salaries and retirement benefits of employees at the Administrative Office of the Courts and appellate courts could mean Chief Justice Ronald George might have to make a tough decision soon between pay cuts and other reductions. On a more encouraging note, the council also heard a report claiming that drug courts save the state $18 million each year.

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