One of the basic tenants of the American judicial system is a trial by a jury of one’s peers. Historically what “one’s peers” means has shifted, but today in Georgia it means all eligible adults. Adults who have criminal convictions or other judicial findings may not be eligible, but nearly all adult Georgians can be called to jury duty. Recently the procedure that counties use to create a pool of jurors for a trial date changed. Under the new law, a list of prospective jurors is created using the Georgia’s driver’s license file and voter registrations. Local county clerks then will draw names randomly from that certified pool. This new procedure is designed to make jury pools morefair and more representative of the population of the county where the trial occurs. (Read more about the change and reasons for it here: http://www.ajc.com/news/state-expands-jury-duty-1468744.html)
Lawyers consider the choice of member of the jury to be a critical moment in the trial. Before potential jurors come to the court house, they typically have filled out a Jury Questionnaire. According to the Jury Commissioner’s Handbook, the personal data solicited on a juror questionnaire generally include: Name, Address, Phone Number, Type and Place of Employment, Work Phone Number, Length of Residency in County, Date of Birth, Sex, Race, U.S. Citizenship (See http://www.georgiacourts.org/aoc/publications/Jury%20Commissioners%20Handbook%20rev05.pdf)
Lawyers use this information to make initial judgments about jurors, based on prior experience about these groups. However, judgments about jurors based on race and sex are considered highly unreliable and discriminatory. Therefore, it is illegal for lawyers to strike or cut jurors based on this information. See Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79, 106 S. Ct. 1712 (1986); J. E. B. v. Alabama, 511 U.S. 127, 114 S. Ct. 1419 (1994).
Lawyers can also ask potential jurors individualized questions. These questions are meant to determine whether or not jurors will be open to hearing the evidence in a case.
As California plaintiff’s attorney Darren O’Leary Aitken states, “First, we must find an audience who is willing to listen.” (See http://news.aitkenlaw.com/articles/philosophy-of-voir-dire/) In order to find the right jury for a case, lawyers engage in a process called “voir dire.” Voir dire is the method by which lawyers get to ask potential jurors questions.
Before voir dire, the potential jurors who are being questioned are sworn in and must answer the voir dire questions under oath. O.C.G.A. 15-12-133 (2010) controls the range of questioning allowed. It states:
In the examination, the counsel for either party shall have the right to inquire of the individual jurors examined touching any matter or thing which would illustrate any interest of the juror in the case, including any opinion as to which party ought to prevail, the relationship or acquaintance of the juror with the parties or counsel therefor, any fact or circumstance indicating any inclination, leaning, or bias which the juror might have respecting the subject matter of the action or the counsel or parties thereto, and the religious, social, and fraternal connections of the juror.
Therefore, when called to jury duty, people should be prepared to answer questions about themselves that might be relevant to the case. For example, if the case involved the suing of a car manufacturing company over faulty construction, a lawyer would be entitled to ask you if you had opinions about a particular car company or whether you believed that Americans are too eager to sue large corporations.
The skill of the questioner is vital at this stage in the jury selection process. The importance of good attorney representation of a client during voir dire cannot be overstated. Failure to ask the key questions of jurors can result in biased jurors being impaneled. Additionally, a lawyer cannot be too aggressive during the voir dire process, because his or her likability is also a factor at trial. Lawyers are often seen my jurors as a reflection of their clients. Great questions asked in a hostile manner can turn off jurors and make them unwilling to listen during the trial.
Jury service is a significant responsibility. It is vital that everyone do their part: jury pools are fair and balanced, citizens willingly serve, and lawyers work hard for their clients. When those three things happen, the American legal system functions properly.