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Through the Eyes of Jurors: The Use of Schemas in the Application of 'Plain Language' Jury Instructions


Sara Gordon


University of Nevada, Las Vegas, William S. Boyd School of Law

July 1, 2012

Hastings Law Journal, Forthcoming
UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper Series

Abstract:     
“Through the Eyes of Jurors” is the first law journal article to consider all of the major cognitive psychology studies that examine how “schemas,” or the preexisting notions jurors have about the law, shape jurors’ use of jury instructions, even when those jurors are given “plain-language” instructions. This Article examines the social science research on schema theory in order to advance our understanding of how schemas continue to influence jurors’ use of jury instructions, even when those jurors are given “plain language” instructions.

A significant body of legal literature has examined jurors’ use and understanding of jury instructions, and many scholars have recommended methods to improve juror comprehension of instructions. This Article takes that analysis a step further, and argues that even when given “plain-language” jury instructions, jurors will still be influenced by their preconceived ideas of what the “law” is — in other words, by the preexisting schemas they have for legal concepts. Furthermore, these schemas are often legally incorrect, and findings from the social sciences suggest that—even when given plain-language jury instructions with the correct legal standard — jurors may still apply these legally inappropriate schemas. This Article synthesizes the results and underlying theories derived from those findings in order to examine the impact these schemas have on jury decisionmaking, and on jurors’ use of jury instructions, and to identify ways lawyers and judges can counteract inappropriate existing schemas and activate legally appropriate schemas before jurors are introduced to the facts they are expected to interpret. Specifically, courts should use principles of cognitive and educational psychology to develop jurors’ schemas for the applicable legal concepts to make their schemas better organized and therefore more accessible. Such schemas would allow for more thoughtful judgment and better, more accurate decisionmaking.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 36

Keywords: law and psychology, jurisprudence, law and society, cognitive psychology, litigation, juries

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Date posted: August 21, 2012 ; Last revised: September 13, 2013

Suggested Citation

Gordon, Sara, Through the Eyes of Jurors: The Use of Schemas in the Application of 'Plain Language' Jury Instructions (July 1, 2012). Hastings Law Journal, Forthcoming; UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper Series. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2133000 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2133000

Contact Information

Sara Gordon (Contact Author)
University of Nevada, Las Vegas, William S. Boyd School of Law ( email )
4505 South Maryland Parkway
Box 451003
Las Vegas, NV 89154
United States
(702) 895-5813 (Phone)
(702) 895-2482 (Fax)
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