SJC Releases Interim Voir Dire Rules For Massachusetts Trial Courts
Posted on December 9, 2014
The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts has just released interim rules to regulate the conduct of lawyers and judges in conducting voir dire under the new voir dire law which takes effect on February 15, 2015. The new law, allowing attorneys to question prospective jurors directly, makes Massachusetts the 39th state to permit direct questioning of jurors by lawyers.
Superior Court Standing Order 1-15 requires attorneys or self-represented parties to request voir dire in advance, and to specify in general what topics they intend to question jurors about. The topics for juror questioning must be those that would allow the attorney to discover what in the juror’s background and experience might influence the juror, and if they have any preset feelings or opinions that would affect their ability to render a fair and impartial verdict.
Voir dire, pronounced “vwar deer”, literally means “To speak the truth”. It has long been seen as an important tool for all lawyers entrusting their cases to a jury of fellow citizens. Although some voir dire did occur in Massachusetts courts prior to the passage of the new law, it was most often conducted by the presiding judge, and lawyers generally had little input into which questions were asked. The new law allows attorneys to ask questions directly.
However, attorneys will not be allowed to ask questions about “political views, voting patterns, party preferences, religious beliefs or affiliation, reading or viewing habits, patterns of charitable giving, opinions on matters of public policy, hobbies or recreational activities, or similar matters, or regarding insurance”, unless those are issues in the case, or might affect the juror’s impartiality in the particular case.
The Massachusetts Bar Association (MBA) approves of the new rules, stating “With the release of this order, the court has taken a tremendous step toward assuring fairness in jury trials.” The Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys (MATA) also approves of the interim rules: “The option of panel versus individual voir dire, the lack of set time constraints, and ultimately leaving the approach in specific cases to the discretion of the trial judge are all enlightened features of the standing order which MATA commends.” Like these organizations, Thornton Law Firm believes that these new rules will make the legal process more fair by allowing attorneys and litigants to root out biases, allowing cases to be decided by truly fair and impartial jury panels.
As a sponsor of the voir dire law in the House of Representatives, I applaud the SJC Committee on Juror Voir Dire and especially Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants, for this reasoned, principled set of rules to guide the courts forward as we seek to make our courts even more fair and just. The committee has made it clear that this is an ongoing process. As these interim rules are put to the test in actual trials, they will be seeking input on what works and what does not from attorneys, judges and jurors so that the final rules represent the best voir dire practice possible.
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