The Case for Allowing Jurors to Submit Written Questions

Article excerpt

Juror questioning of witnesses is neither a new nor an innovative concept in the common law and American jurisprudence.1 Jurors have questioned witnesses in England since the eighteenth century, and the practice has existed in America since 1825.2

At common law, those charged with capital crimes were not afforded counsel unless lesfal issues needed debating. The judge and jury were authorized to ask questions. With the lack of counsel and few procedural and evidentiary rules, criminal trials were solely in the hands of judges. As the English court system evolved, more emphasis was placed on fair procedure. Defense counsel played an increasing role, while the role of jurors as active participants diminished. The emphasis on the quality of evidence, shaped by examination by counsel, relegated the juror to the role of passive, neutral observer.3

The practice of juror questioning of witnesses in federal courts dates back as far as 1954.4 By allowing juror questioning, courts sought to promote clarification of facts and the discovery of truth. At least 30 states and the District of Columbia permit jurors to question witnesses. A few states prohibit the practice.5 Every federal circuit that has addressed the issue of juror questioning of witnesses agrees that it is a practice that should be left entirely within the court's discretion.6 In most military hearings, members of court-martial panels have the opportunity to question witnesses.7

The first American court to address the validity of jury questioning of witnesses, in 1895, asserted that the practice was not prejudicial to either party in the suit and emphasized that it was a commendable practice since it helped the jury to "properly determine the case before them."8

Originally, juror questioning was known as "juror outbursts," which gives some idea as to the formality of the procedure. If a juror had a question, the juror would simply blurt it out in open court. During the 1950s and 1960s, courts began establishing more formal procedures. The earliest case in which a court created formal procedures for juror questioning was decided in 1926.9

Controlling the process

Certain procedural safeguards can reduce or eliminate the risks of jury questioning of witnesses. The demeanor of the judge and how the judge addresses the issue make the difference. The judge decides whether a witness should be asked questions posed by jurors. This applies to both civil and criminal cases. The judge should give preliminary limiting instructions about the procedure being available, what questions will be allowed, and the technical rules involved. He or she should explain that questions are not encouraged but are to be sparingly used. Jurors should be told that they are not advocates, and must remain neutral. They should also be told that they are not to draw any inference if their question is not asked, because the rules of evidence and rulings by the judge in the case will limit even the parties' questioning, and that they are not to reveal any unasked question to the other jurors.

Jurors should be told that the judge is the "gatekeeper" and determines which questions will be asked, and in what format. Juror questions should be limited to matters attested to during direct and cross-examination, and to clarifying information already presented. The questions should be of the type that a factfinder, and not an advocate, would ask. They should be factual, not argumentative. Questions should not be asked to express views on the case or to argue with a witness. The juror questions should come only after the witness is finished testifying, but before that witness leaves the stand.

Questions should be in writing, collected by the bailiff and submitted directly to thejudge, and never to the witness. Questions should not be discussed with the other jurors and should not be signed. The parties should be given the opportunity to object to the questions, outside the hearing of the jurors, and the questions should be made a part of the record. …