Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Voir Dire in the Libby Case

According to a story in today's NY Times, Scooter Libby's lawyers are asking prospective jurors their views about the Bush Administration in an effort to ferret out biased jurors. This may seem a legitimate line of questioning. For example, one woman said “'nothing that could be said here'” would make her believe anything good about the administration." That should probably result in a dismissal for cause, although perhaps not if a follow-up question revealed that this woman meant she wouldn't believe anything good about the administration's policies but she would base her verdict on the evidence.

The questioning of another juror presents a still harder case. The story reports: "Another man, after about 15 minutes, acknowledged that his low regard for Mr. Cheney might figure into how he evaluated his testimony if it was in conflict with other witnesses." Is this disqualifying? What if the witness in question were a convicted perjurer? Surely a prospective juror's low regard for such a person would legitimately affect his evaluation of the witness's testimony. Is it bias, or just good sense, that would lead one to question the reliability of statements by Cheney, who said in 2002 that "there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction."? (That quote is taken from the White House website.)

Perhaps the most disturbing line of the story is its final one: "Potential jurors were also asked if they believed that the administration distorted intelligence to bolster the case for war with Iraq." I would think that a negative answer to this question could be disqualifying, because it could reflect a pro-Administration bias. (I say "could" because such an answer could just reflect ignorance.) But undoubtedly the question was asked in the hope of using positive answers to disqualify jurors, either for cause or peremptorily.

Isn't it abundantly clear that there is only one legitimate question to ask regarding jurors' political views? Namely: "Are you able to put aside your favorable or unfavorable views of President Bush, Vice President Cheney and their Administration, and evaluate this case solely based on the evidence presented?" And since it's hard to imagine anyone answering "no" to this question unless he or she wishes to avoid jury service, the Libby voir dire ends up as an object lesson in the problems with our jury selection system. I say we should adopt the English approach: absent a strong personal connection to a party or other very pronounced bias, the first 12 people called end up on the jury, full stop.

Cheerio!

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