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Modern Juries

The rules and laws surrounding juries are numerous and varied. Generally, federal and state courts follow the same process in impaneling a jury. First, a pool of jurors, called the venire, is selected from the community's driver license lists or voter registration lists to come to court. Before trial, the lawyers for the parties put the venire through voir dire. Voir dire is the examination of jurors to see if they are competent and suitable to sit on a jury. The lawyers for each side may excuse a potential juror from the case "for cause," which can be anything that impairs the person's ability to perform the duties of a juror. Lawyers may challenge an unlimited number of prospective jurors for cause. The lawyers also have a limited number of "peremptory challenges," or challenges to prospective jurors that are unsupported by a reason.

One important issue is concerned with precisely who may serve on a jury. Women were excluded from juries in some states as late as the 1940s. In many states, women could serve on juries, but the right of women to serve on a jury was not confirmed by the Supreme Court until 1975. That year, after decades of stops and starts, the High Court held in Taylor v. Louisiana that the Sixth Amendment prohibited excluding from jury duty whole identifiable segments of the community, including women.

African Americans historically were prevented from serving on juries, even after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Fourteenth Amendment of 1868, both of which purported to protect the rights of all American citizens. As early as 1880, the U.S. Supreme Court had held in Strauder v. West Virginia that exclusion of black persons from a jury violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Subsequent High Court decisions confirmed that a jury should be a cross-section of the community, but the practice of excluding whole racial groups from juries continued as lawyers clung to the benefits of racially homogenous juries. In 1986, the Supreme Court attempted to stop such maneuvering with its decision in Batson v. Kentucky. In Batson, the High Court held that a party may question the removal of a juror if the party believes that the opposing party removed the juror solely on the basis of race or gender.

There are differences in the juries of civil trials and the juries in criminal trials. Under the Seventh Amendment, a party to a civil case is entitled to a jury trial, but the U.S. Supreme Court has not held that the same rule applies to the states. Nevertheless, most states give parties the right to choose a jury trial in most civil cases. On the federal level, Congress may deny the right to a jury trial in a civil case, provided the case deals with public rights (i.e. the right to safe working conditions), and provided Congress creates an administrative body to be the sole arbiter of the disputes. (Atlas v. Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission)

The right to a jury trial in a criminal case is slightly more important than the right in a civil case. This is because a person's liberty is at risk in a criminal case. If a criminal defendant does not face jail time of more than six months, the defendant does not have a right to a jury trial. Trials held without a jury are called "bench trials," and are tried solely before the judge, who hears the evidence and makes the decision herself.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationGreat American Court CasesJuries - History, The Jury System In America, Modern Juries, Further Readings