Q: What is an “impartial juror”?
A: We hear the right to trial by jury touted as one of the principles that forms “the bright constellation” of our democracy (Thomas Jefferson), and even “the palladium of our liberties” (Mark Twain – even though he admits to not knowing “what a palladium is,” he is “sure it is a good thing”). But what does it mean in practice to be an impartial juror, and what do judges do to ensure the jury is not biased for one party or the other?
In this day and age of rapid communication and enough headlines to satisfy all news junkies’ appetite for information, it would be nearly impossible to empanel a jury that is entirely ignorant of the facts and issues involved in high profile cases, whether they be criminal trials or civil lawsuits. Instead, impartiality means the juror can set aside his or her impression or opinion of the case and render a verdict based on only the evidence presented in court.
To do this, the judge first instructs a group of potential jurors about the nature of the case to be presented, and any controversial pieces of the trial that may invoke bias. For example, if the case is a civil suit involving a drunk driving accident, the case may invoke bias for some jurors who have family members injured or killed by drunk drivers.
The judge and the parties’ attorneys then conduct voir dire—a preliminary examination of a juror—to inquire about past life experiences and opinions and understand what may or may not prevent a juror from being a neutral factfinder. For example, if either party expects to have a police officer testify, the attorneys may ask a potential juror if he or she is more or less likely to believe a police officer’s testimony just because the individual is a police officer. Neither the juror who gives more nor the juror who gives less weight based solely on the witness’s occupation is particularly impartial. An attorney can move to exclude a potential juror who is biased in this way from the panel.
Because trial by jury is considered to be a safeguard of our rights, jurors’ impartiality plays a major role in the execution of our constitution. Although not always perfect, and undoubtedly time consuming, voir dire offers one avenue to ensure that impartiality.
Know the Law is a bi-weekly column sponsored by McLane Middleton. Questions and ideas for future columns should be emailed to [email protected]. Know the Law provides general legal information, not legal advice. We recommend that you consult a lawyer for guidance specific to your particular situation.