Voir dire is the process by which potential jurors are chosen from a pre-selected jury pool. During this phase of jury selection, the attorneys for each party, as well as the judge, ask questions of each potential juror to determine whether he or she has any bias regarding the case, or other reason he or she should not be chosen. This French term literally means “to speak the truth,” and is used in the U.S. to determine the truth of whether jurors are able to fairly judge a legal case. To explore this concept, consider the following voir dire definition.
Definition of Voir Dire
- A pre-trial examination or questioning to determine the suitability of a juror.
History of Voir Dire in the U.S.
Historically, the legal term voir dire referred to an oath required of all jurors to tell the truth, or to say what is true. This meant that the juror promised to be impartial and honest in hearing testimony, viewing evidence, and in rendering judgment. In past centuries, a challenge against any potential juror would be tried by other jurors already chosen, rather than by decision between the parties and the judge.
Jury Duty in the U.S.
Every American citizen has a duty to serve on a jury if requested, and lists of potential jurors in each jurisdiction are compiled by the court. Jury pools are obtained from such sources as voter registration, the department of motor vehicles, records of the Secretary of State, and sometimes records from the department of public health. This mandatory service is necessary to guarantee each individual accused of a crime to an impartial trial of his peers, and to fairly judge the circumstances in civil lawsuits.
Potential jurors are notified by mail of the date and time to report to the courthouse for jury selection. Once there, each person is brought into the room and questioned by the parties or their attorneys, as well as the judge to determine whether he or she has any bias about the case, or about either party to the case.
While most reasons people might give as a hardship making it difficult for them to serve on a jury, few of these excuses are actually considered valid. In some extreme cases, however, the court may dismiss a potential juror for undue hardship, and this is done on a case-by-case basis. In addition, the court will generally excuse an individual over 70 years of age from jury duty if requested.
Use of Voir Dire
In the U.S., the voir dire process is used to choose jurors for a civil or criminal trial that are likely to be impartial and fair in their judgment. Questions are intended to weed out people who have strong opinions about the subject matter, who already have personal knowledge about the case, or who may have a bias for or against either party to the trial. Individuals who work in certain professions, such as law enforcement, are often dismissed, as they tend to have preconceived ideas about certain issues, especially in criminal matters. In a criminal trial, a potential juror who is prejudiced against the punishment that might be levied, should the defendant be found guilty, is likely to be dismissed.
Mary has been called as a potential juror in the case of a fatal accident caused by a drunk driver. The driver is being tried for two counts of second degree murder. Mary’s aunt was killed by a drunk driver 10 years ago. During the voir dire process, the defense attorney asks Mary if she has ever known anyone who was involved in a drunk driving accident. Upon learning of Mary’s aunt, the attorney dismisses Mary from the jury pool. This is because she is highly likely to be biased against the defendant before ever hearing any evidence.
Potential jurors may be dismissed from the jury pool on one of two grounds: (1) they may be dismissed for “cause,” or (2) they may be dismissed on a “peremptory challenge.” When a potential juror has some conflict or bias, such as Mary’s experience with a drunk driver, he is likely to be dismissed “for cause.” These jurors are dismissed by the judge once the conflict is determined.
Although it is not a stated purpose of voir dire, this questioning gives the attorneys a chance to get a feel for each potential juror’s personality and opinions. It is possible for an attorney to dismiss a potential juror for no reason at all, except he or she just doesn’t “fit.” This type of dismissal is referred to as a “peremptory challenge.” Each attorney is allowed a specific, limited number of peremptory challenges to use on each case, though this number varies by jurisdiction. Because they can dismiss only a small number of people, it is not uncommon for attorneys to wait until the end of voir dire to dismiss individuals on peremptory challenge.
Voir Dire of Expert Witnesses
During both civil and criminal trials, either party may introduce expert witnesses to give testimony about any variety of issues. This may range from testimony as to the accuracy of certain scientific or forensic testing procedures, to medical testimony about a party’s condition. Any time a witness is called as an expert in some field, the opposing party has an opportunity to first question him about his qualifications, what institutional employment he has held, and perhaps what expert publications he has made that qualify him to offer expert testimony. This is known as voir dire of an expert witness.
If a party questions the witness’ competency to give expert testimony on the topic, the witness may be challenged. This then requires additional court proceedings in which the judge will rule on whether the witness may offer expert testimony or not.
Common Voir Dire Questions
When questioning potential jurors, the parties, or their attorneys, have four goals in mind:
- Educate jurors on important trial concepts
- Obtain information from each juror
- Develop a connection with each juror
- Sway jurors to consider the case from their point of view
To that end, each attorney may ask prospective jurors a wide variety of voir dire questions, though there are a number of questions that are commonly used to determine a juror’s suitability for any specific case. Commonly asked voir dire questions include:
- What type of work do you do?
- I you serve on a jury, you will be judging another human being. Are you comfortable doing that?
- If you were my client, would you be comfortable having you as a juror on this case?
- Is there anything in your own life that reminds you of this case? If so, what is it?
- Before coming in today, had you heard anything about this case?
- Have you learned anything about this case that would make it difficult for you to judge the defendant impartially?
- If chosen as a juror on this case, you will be required to take an oath to consider only the evidence presented at trial, and to follow the relevant laws. Will you be able to do this?
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Bias – A preconceived opinion that prevents a person from impartially evaluating facts that have been presented for determination; a prejudice.
- Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
- Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.