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Local Judge's View: Don't blow off jury duty; fairness is on the line

From the column: "We could not do what we do without citizens who are willing to fulfill this important role."

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Sixth Judicial District Judge Dale Harris
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Jury service is critical to the courts’ mission. Once a jury pool is set and summonses go out to the prospective jurors, what happens next?

As the trial date approaches, some jury panels will be called in to fill out a more specific questionnaire, under oath, relating to a particular case. This often occurs in criminal cases that have received pretrial publicity or deal with a very sensitive subject matter, like sexual assault. These written questionnaires help the judge and the lawyers determine whether an individual juror should be questioned outside the presence of other jurors. This protects the juror’s privacy and also avoids an answer that might taint the rest of the jury pool.

Based on those questionnaires, some jurors will come in one at a time to be questioned about their answers. The parties have the opportunity to strike those jurors for cause. For example, if someone had a close family member accused of or the victim of a crime similar to the trial case, the attorneys or judge would ask if that background would make it difficult for them to be fair to both sides. Or if a prospective juror had heard media accounts about a case, the parties would want to know what they remember and whether that external information would color their views of the case.

After individual questioning is completed, the remaining jurors are brought in as a group. The judge introduces all the parties and attorneys and provides some preliminary instructions on general legal concepts, like which party has the burden of proof and what the standard of proof is. In criminal cases, the state has the burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In civil cases, the plaintiff has the burden by the lower standard of a “preponderance” of the evidence. The past few years, most judges will also discuss whatever pandemic precautions are in place for the trial.

After these preliminary instructions, a random group of jurors is called to the jury box. The judge asks some basic questions of everyone, such as whether the jurors are all residents of the county and whether they have any sort of physical impairment, travel plans, or personal commitments that would make it difficult to serve. The judge also reads a list of potential witnesses to determine if any of the jurors know those witnesses. After the judge finishes, the defense goes next. That questioning tends to be more detailed, designed to determine any biases or inflexible attitudes that would disqualify a juror. The prosecution (or plaintiff in a civil case) then goes last.

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Once the questioning is complete and the judge rules on any challenges for cause, each party gets a series of “peremptory challenges” or strikes. These challenges do not require any specific reason, and the number of challenges is predetermined. Both sides alternate with their strikes until the panel is at the correct number for the type of case. In a major criminal case, that number is usually 12 jurors plus at least one alternate in case a juror becomes ill or otherwise cannot complete the trial. The jurors do not know who the alternates are. In civil or minor criminal cases, there must be a minimum of six jurors. Once the jury is picked, the trial can begin.

This process in most trials only takes a day or two, but in larger cases can take weeks. Jury selection tends to make for a long day for everyone, but it is an important part of the trial process to ensure both sides have a fair panel.

We could not do what we do without citizens who are willing to fulfill this important role.

Dale Harris of Duluth is a judge in the 6th Judicial District.

Related Topics: LOCAL VIEWCRIME AND COURTS
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