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Jury Selection and Voir Dire

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Jury selection is the process of selecting a group of people to hear the evidence in a case and decide the outcome of a trial. Depending on the complexity of the case, jury selection can last half a day or an entire week. Selecting a jury is governed by certain rules.

Voir Dire

Voir dire is the part of jury selection where attorneys for both sides (and the judge) ask questions of the individual jurors or the group as a whole. Translated from the French, the term means "to speak the truth." Voir dire is the opportunity to preliminarily question a prospective juror to decide whether that person is qualified to serve on a jury.

For instance, in a lawsuit between a homeowner and the builder, the panel may be asked if any of them have ever hired a builder. Those who indicate that they have had dealings with a builder may be questioned about their attitudes toward homebuilders and how their specific situation turned out. The lawyers are trying to determine who will be most sympathetic to their side of the case.

Challenges

As voir dire proceeds, the lawyers or the judge may excuse potential jurors for various reasons. If an attorney believes a juror should not serve on the jury, she must use a "challenge" to excuse that juror. There are two types of challenges, or reasons, to dismiss a juror:

  • For cause. Laws set out various reasons why jurors may be excused "for cause." For instance, a juror who is related to one of the parties (or the judge or attorneys) in the case may be excused for cause. An attorney may challenge jurors for cause as many times as necessary; however, the other lawyer can object and it is possible the judge will rule that the juror may stay.
  • Peremptory. Before voir dire begins, each side in a case has a certain number of peremptory challenges or "strikes" that can be used to excuse a juror without giving a reason. Each side is entitled to request that the judge excuse a particular juror as long as they have peremptory challenges left. The number of peremptory challenges lawyers have in a trial varies according to the laws of the state.

Who is eligible to be a juror?

Any U.S. citizen over 18 years of age and residing in the county where the trial is to take place is eligible to serve. It is unconstitutional to disqualify anyone because of race, creed or color.

Sidebar: Additionally, jurors must:

  • be able to understand English;
  • have the mental and physical capacity to carry out the duties of a juror; and
  • not have served on a jury in previous months (typically 12 months).

I was convicted of a felony years ago. Will I ever be able to serve on a jury?

Yes. Your rights to serve on a jury, vote and hold certain licenses can be restored. In some states, the right will be automatically restored once you have served your time and completed probation. Laws in other states require you to petition the court to have these rights restored.

Why do I have to fill out a personal history questionnaire?

The answers to the questions assist the attorneys and the judge in selecting (and disqualifying) potential jurors. For instance, a person whose husband works for the company being sued is automatically disqualified because of potential bias.

TIP: The questions asked are mostly related to the socioeconomic status of potential jurors. For instance, occupation, marital status and the juror's (or his family's) prior experience with the court system are typical of the type of questions asked on the personal history questionnaire.

Who will see my answers to the questions on the form?

The attorney, their clients and the judge are usually the only people with access to the questionnaires.

If I am Hispanic, am I entitled to at least one Hispanic juror?

No. You are only entitled to a jury that is representative of your community. If there are a variety of ethnicities living in your community, it is possible that a Hispanic will not be picked.

Sidebar:The jury pool, however, cannot exclude Hispanics. The pool is the large group of citizens (sometimes 100 or more) picked for jury duty and from which specific trial juries are chosen.

Is anyone automatically allowed to be exempt from jury duty?

Yes. Most states have laws permitting exemptions on the basis of age. For example, a person over 70 is not required to serve, although she may if she wishes. Eighteen year-olds still in high school during the school year are also automatically exempted.

I am not exempt from jury service, but can I get excused?

Yes. There are many valid excuses. However, this generally only postpones eventual jury duty. Some excuses that courts are willing to accept include:

  • caring for young children or a disabled individual
  • health problems or a disability that makes jury service difficult
  • a scheduled vacation already booked and paid for
  • personal commitments (a marriage, for example) that cannot be rescheduled

My employer says I will be fired if I get picked to be on a jury. Can he do this?

No. The law requires that employees be allowed time off to serve on a jury. It is illegal for your employer to harass or fire you because you are a juror. Contact the court if this happens.

How much will I get paid to be on a jury?

Payment varies from state to state. You may get as little as $10 per day or as much as $75. You are also entitled to reimbursement for parking and travel to and from the courthouse at a per-mile rate, such as $.10 per mile.

What will happen if I do not show up for jury duty?

Failure to appear as summoned could result in a large monetary fine, a jail sentence and other legal consequences.