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The law of access to judicial records and documents has been built on federal and state laws, court rules, state constitutions and the common law, which is the law as developed in court opinions.
The right to get information about jurors is a qualified right. This means there are limits to the extent of this right. It’s based on the First Amendment right of access to judicial proceedings. The United States Supreme Court has issued some opinions dealing with the right of access to judicial proceedings, but it hasn’t extended access rights to judicial records.
Some courts have addressed the issue of whether people have a right to see judicial records. This right is not based on the federal Freedom of Information Act because it doesn’t apply to courts.
U.S. Supreme Court Opinions
The Supreme Court has issued opinions dealing with the right of access to judicial proceedings. The Court has held the First Amendment required access to the transcript of a voir dire proceeding. This is the part of the trial where the potential jurors are interviewed. Also, the Court has recognized a First Amendment-based right to a transcript of a preliminary hearing. Lower courts have also ruled on this subject.
U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Opinions
The US Court of Appeals has held the right to access voir dire examinations included the live proceedings and the transcripts which document those proceedings. The US Court of Appeals also recognized a common law right of access to the names and addresses of jurors and alternates, which begins once the jury is chosen. At this stage of the proceeding, the information becomes part of the public record.
State Court Opinions
A New York Court allowed nondisclosure of the names and addresses of jurors who failed to reach a verdict in a murder trial. The Delaware Supreme Court rejected a constitutional right of access to juror names. California courts have allowed public access to voir dire questionnaires and to oral questioning. Prospective jurors are told in advance that their written responses are not confidential. They’re also told they have a right to request a private hearing if they believe public disclosure will cause them embarrassment or other harm.
The Ohio Supreme Court held the First Amendment and the Ohio Constitution both guarantee the public and press a qualified right of access to juror questionnaires and to juror names and addresses. The questionnaires are considered part of voir dire and subject to a presumption of openness.
Identities During Trial
When it comes to trial – and particularly criminal trials – juror identities are sometimes not made public. This usually happens in rare cases and only when the judge has a good reason to do it. For example, juror names may be withheld when:
- A criminal defendant is extremely dangerous and may pose a serious threat of retaliation against the jurors, either personally or though his friends and family
- A criminal defendant has a history of bribing, intimidating, or physically harming jurors or potential jurors, or police uncover evidence that he plans to do so in the present trial
- Potential jurors let the court know they’re feeling stress or fear about having their names and other identifying information made known to the public
- The case draws a lot of media attention, opening up the jurors to unwanted attention from the media or the general public
In May 2010, the federal judge in the case ordered the identities of the jurors in the case to be kept from the public until a verdict is reached. According to reports, he wanted to protect the jurors from getting unwanted emails or other communications from members of the public wanting to express their opinions about Blagojevich.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Can the press obtain information about jurors in all cases?
- What kind of information about jurors can people or the press obtain?
- Where can I find out what kind of information people can get about jurors in my state?