ABA to Propose Juror Privacy Rules

Prospective jurors could keep more personal information private and challenge overly intrusive questioning by lawyers under a proposed overhaul of the way jurors are selected and serve.

The plan developed by a panel of the American Bar Association (search) is intended to improve jury participation and service. The 25-page proposal urges states to adopt rules to keep jury selection open but also guard against the release of information such as jurors' addresses and family history.

Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor (search), honorary head of the American Jury Project (search), planned to release the proposal on Thursday with ABA officials.

The proposals come amid increased media and public scrutiny of jurors, particularly in high-profile cases such as the Scott Peterson (search) murder trial. But they are also meant to improve the day-to-day grind of jury service, which many people see as an unnecessary hassle and seek to avoid serving.

In Washington, for example, only half of the people who receive a jury summons respond, according to the courts in the capital. Figures vary greatly from state to state.

"Jury selection is dull," said Adele Bernhard, a criminal justice professor at Pace Law School (search) in New York, who was not involved in developing the proposals. "The suggestions are aimed at making the experience less onerous and more pleasant for the citizens volunteering. That's a good goal."

Under the plan, judges would be required to ensure jurors' privacy, such as explaining how their information will be used and who will have access to it. Prospective jurors also may refuse to answer sensitive questions such as drug use or sexual history if a judge deems the inquiry irrelevant.

Courts would be barred from releasing jurors' addresses and phone numbers unless there is a compelling reason. Also, if photographers are permitted in the courtroom, they would not be allowed to record or transmit images of the jurors' faces.

Other proposals would allow jurors to take notes during trial and discuss the case among themselves while the case is progressing. They also could submit questions to judges in civil cases if they wished additional information from a witness.

"We're trying to balance the litigant's right to select a fair and partial jury and the press' right to report on what's happening in the courthouses, vs. jurors' right to some degrees of privacy," said Patricia Lee Refo, a Phoenix lawyer who heads the ABA project.

"With courts opening records that can be searchable on the Internet, it makes information much more accessible than it was 10 years ago," she said.

The proposals will be voted on by the ABA's policy-making board in February. If approved, they will become formal guidelines for state legislatures and courts to decide whether to adopt.

The recommendations also would:

--Allow alternates to be present in the jury room during deliberations, thus minimizing disruption if some jurors were later excused or dismissed.

--Provide jurors with written copies of jury instructions to consult during deliberations.

--Provide child-care reimbursements for parents who must serve on juries.

--Bar employers from firing or denying promotions to workers who must take time off work for jury service, or requiring them to use vacation time.