By John DiMotto
The most important duty of a judge - the judicial gatekeeper - in a jury trial is to establish a relationship of trust with the jury panel from the moment the panel enters the courtroom. While the lawyers and the judge may know the nuances of the case, both factual and legal, the jury comes into the courtroom "in the dark." When they walk into the courtroom, they often do not know what to expect and often do not even know what type of case they will be hearing. The judge must not just welcome the jury panel but create a comfort level so they can focus on their role -- to determine the facts.
When the jury panel enters my courtroom, I spend between 15 and 30 minutes just familiarizing the jury panel with the nature of the case, what a jury trial entails and how they should approach their role. I give them a brief synopsis of the type of case (ie. Personal injury automobile accident lawsuit); and what they must decide (ie. liability - the issue of fault - and damages). I explain to them how they came to be selected (ie. from public records) and that everyone who is called must serve - no one is too important to avoid jury service. I even tell them I have served on a jury so I know what it is to be a juror - that I have sat in jury box and have done what they are about to embark upon. I explain to them that they must decide the case only on what they learn, see and hear in the courtroom. I spend a lot of time telling them that they must "isolate themselves from the outside world" so they do not jeopardize the integrity of their verdict and I do so with multiple examples of what can happen if they do not follow my instructions. I explain the seven phases of a trial so they know where they are in the case and where they are going in the case. I am upfront about the time commitment they must make and how I appreciate their sacrifice. I let them know that I will be as upfront with them as I possibly can and will give them explanations about what is going on and will go on as best I can. By gaining their trust, I will gain their respect for the case, the system and the process.
In my next post, I will further discuss the voir dire process and what it can accomplish.