Like Rick Stuhan, who guest-posted here yesterday, we often like jury questionnaires.
Asking potential jurors to complete written questionnaires serves several purposes.
First, written questionnaires can shorten the time needed for voir dire, because questions that would otherwise be asked orally during voir dire will already have been answered in writing. There’s no need to ask those questions again.
Second, a written questionnaire gives a juror more time to think about the questions and to answer them accurately. Instead of answering an oral question with no time to reflect, the juror can gather his or her thoughts before answering a written question.
Third, questionnaires often permit counsel to learn more information about potential jurors than is allowed during oral voir dire.
Fourth, a written questionnaire, approved by the judge, will pose neutral questions in a non-prejudicial way, avoiding some of the gamesmanship that can occur when lawyers conduct oral voir dire.
Fifth, if the questionnaire can be completed and provided to counsel before the morning of jury selection, then counsel can have a decent amount of time to think about the answers before exercising their strikes, rather than having to select the jury on the fly, with no time for thought.
Sixth, written questionnaires, with a promise that they’ll be held in confidence, can ask personal questions (about the potential juror’s medical history, for example, which might be relevant in a drug or device case) that can’t appropriately be asked in open court. Rather than spending the significant time needed to conduct individual voir dire in private, one juror at a time, the court can have jurors answer the personal questions in writing.
We could go on.
But we won’t.
Suffice it to say that we often like jury questionnaires.
The issue is how to persuade courts to use them.
More and more courts are permitting juror questionnaires these days, and we approve of that trend.
If you’re in a court that doesn’t typically use questionnaires, here’s a thought: Make the questionnaire look as simple as humanly possible.
We’ve seen folks submit proposed jury questionnaires that are 20 and 30 typed pages in length, asking a series of (double-spaced) questions and providing an inch or two of space between questions for the jurors to write in answers.
The judge predictably looks at the 30-page monstrosity and declines to use it. Why should the court inflict a 30-page test on jurors?
Thoughtful counsel, however, will craft questionnaires that elicit essentially the same amount of information, but don’t appear to be as burdensome.
Here’s what we suggest: Aim for a questionnaire that consists of just a single sheet of paper,
printed on two sides.
To make this work, you must forget about creating anything that looks like a traditional document: portrait-style layout on the page; standard size fonts; lots of room for answers.
Instead, think short. Real short.
Turn the page landscape-style, so you can fit three columns of questions across the page.
Shrink the font. It can’t be illegible, but it sure doesn’t have to be pica, either.
Leave room for written answers only where written answers are essential, such as, “Your current occupation and employer.” For everything else, ask a short question followed by tiny boxes that invite the juror to check “yes” or “no” (or where, appropriate, “agree,” “disagree,” or “no opinion,” or “yes, myself,” “yes, family or friend,” or “no”). You get the idea.
When you leave room for written answers, force the jurors to write in tiny letters. Maybe give ’em a couple of lines, an eighth of an inch of apart (vertically) to print their kids’ occupations, for example.
And, as we said, print the thing on two-sided paper.
You can then hand the judge a single sheet of paper (with three columns on each side, and printed on both sides of the page), and ask the court to distribute it several days before jury selection begins. If both parties favor using the questionnaire, and it appears to (and, in reality, does) pose so little burden on the jurors, the court is likely to distribute the questionnaire.
Moreover, if it’s logistically possible, and if the judge is willing, have the jurors return the questionnaire a day or two before jury selection begins. This will give you a night (or perhaps even a weekend) to evaluate the information before making your strikes.
To our eye, this is often sensible and helpful to both parties, and it’s an idea well worth considering.
But don’t be silly about it: Do not submit a 25-page, double-spaced questionnaire and expect a court to use it.
You wouldn’t use it, either; it’s just too intimidating.
Collapse the thing to a single, two-sided page, and savor the opportunity to think intelligently about potential jurors before being asked to exercise your strikes.