Bonds Juror Questionnaires to be Made Public During Voir Dire; Juror Names to be Withheld Until Trial End

by Davis Wright Tremaine LLP

The United States District Court, Northern District of California (J., Illston) issued a 10-page ruling on March 14, 2011, granting the public and press access to completed juror questionnaires during the voir dire process in the upcoming perjury trial of former San Francisco Giants baseball player Barry Bonds.1 The Court however ordered the names of jurors to be withheld until the end of trial. Citing to United States Supreme Court precedent, the Court stated:

‘The process of juror selection is itself a matter of importance, not simply to adversaries but to the criminal justice system.’ [Citation omitted.] Historically, an open selection process has given ‘assurances to those not attending trials that others were able to observe the proceedings and enhanced public confidence.’2

Although noting that neither the United States Supreme Court nor the Ninth Circuit have addressed to what extent the public’s presumptive right of access to the voir dire process extends to written questionnaires or juror names, the Court recognized that these access rights were grounded in federal constitutional law: “Just as it is important for the press and public to be able to ‘attend, listen, and report on’ voir dire generally … it is important for the press and public to be able to have access to, see, and report on the jury questionnaires that are actually part of the jury selection process.” Applying the same presumptive right of access to the names of jurors, the Court found that the competing interests of juror privacy and defendant’s right to a fair trial militated against access to juror names during trial, noting the high profile nature of the case, the potential for interaction between the public and jurors and the risk that the public could approach jurors in an attempt to influence their verdict. The Court rejected defense efforts to keep secret other indentifying information on the questionnaires such as the city of residence or employer information, and ruled that the names would be made public once a verdict in the matter is reached.

Details of the court’s March 14 ruling

Vacating its Feb. 19, 2009 Pre-trial Order sealing the juror questionnaires, the Court’s ruling addressed four specific issues raised by the Press Organizations’ motion: “First, to what extent does the public right of access to the juror selection process extend to the content of written jury questionnaires filled out before oral voir dire begins? Second, to what extent does the public right of access to the jury selection process extend to the names or other identifiers of prospective and empaneled jurors? Third, are there any compelling governmental interests in restricting either of these rights? And finally, what narrow means might the Court use to serve those interests?”

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