Something happened recently on Beacon Hill, and while it didn’t receive a great deal of buzz or media fanfare, it will substantially level the playing field for plaintiffs in Massachusetts injury suits. Governor Deval Patrick earlier this month signed legislation that will give attorneys the ability to question potential jurors in Massachusetts Superior Court cases. Surprised that this wasn’t always the case? You’d have every reason to be. How has it been handled in the past? Read on.
First, a definition: The process of questioning potential jurors in a case, before a jury is finally selected and empaneled, is called “Voir Dire.” The process is intended to ‘weed out’ potential jurors who may be biased in one way or another. For ‘eons’ in Massachusetts, judges have retained the sole power to conduct voir dire questioning of potential jurors. While judges tended to pose questions that attorneys in the case provided to them, they were never obligated to ask any particular questions that an attorney wanted. Judges retained sole control over the process.
In trying to assess whether a potential juror was biased or otherwise unacceptable to serve, attorneys were limited to reviewing the answers provided in a one page questionnaire given to potential jurors. Stunningly, no verbal exchanges or discussions were allowed between attorneys and potential jurors! Exactly how was an attorney to make an accurate assessment of a potential juror, without engaging in a direct, brief discussion about that juror’s views of the type of case they might serve on? For the plaintiffs’ attorneys involved, the whole process of juror selection was based on speculation and guess work. Care to know just how archaic and outdated this jury selection system in Massachusetts really was? 39 other states – including all of the other New England states – allow attorney-conducted voir dire (make that ten states, now.)