The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that in a criminal trial the accused shall have the right to “an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed.…” Voir dire, which means “to speak the truth,” is a procedure that is designed to achieve an impartial jury. It is the process where members of the community, drawn at random, are questioned about their ability to serve on the jury in an impartial manner. However, many courts have been sharply limiting the ability of attorneys to conduct voir dire.
This recent trend of narrowing the scope of voir dire is lamentable. Regrettably, many American citizens still have deep prejudices when it comes to race, religion, gender, and national origin. For instance, watch this video of a woman verbally assaulting a Muslim man following a traffic dispute:
Without robust voir doire, it is often impossible to discern which prospective jurors might possess such alarming views as the woman in the above video. In cases that involve issues of race, crime, abuse of power, or other constitutional rights, the prejudices harbored by a prospective juror might prevent them from following the law. Although the law supposes that jurors will follow a judge’s instructions, deeply-seated prejudices and biases will almost always have an undue influence.
In order to ensure that our jurors are truly impartial, courts should encourage, rather than circumscribe, the ability of lawyers to conduct voir dire. Courts should also use supplemental questionnaires because potential jurors may be more likely to be truthful in response to a written questionnaire than confessing their prejudices in open court. Regardless of the method, lawyers should be given significant latitude to question prospective jurors so as to uncover bias, and to ensure that the jury panel is “impartial.”