Proposal to bar access to jury lists is shelved

October 14, 2006|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,sun reporter

A state panel of lawyers and judges has shelved a proposal to ban public access to potential juror lists and to release only the names of people sworn in as jurors, saying it failed to address several issues.

The proposal sought to ease the growing reluctance of people to serve on juries out of fear that their safety might be threatened or their private data compromised, or that they might be harassed after a trial.

It has met stiff opposition from lawyers, who use the data to select juries, and from public information advocates, who say the proposal could remove the jury process from scrutiny.

The Rules Committee, a panel that makes recommendations to the state's highest court, said yesterday that the proposal must better balance the courts' need for jurors with citizens' concerns for privacy, lawyers' desire for strong advocacy and the public's right to access to information.

The intent of the proposal was to keep juror information "as confidential as possible," said Dennis M. Sweeney, a Howard County Circuit Court judge who heads the Council on Jury Use and Management. "There is a legitimate and a persistent tone [from potential jurors] of `Why do you need this information?' and `What are you going to do with this information?'" Sweeney said.

Potential jurors are asked for personal data, including date of birth, education, employment and spouse's employment. The information always goes to lawyers and parties in a trial.

Some judges and lawyers said it is not realistic to tell jurors that their names and personal data will go to those accused of murderer and their lawyers, then advise them not to worry.

Linda M. Schuett, attorney for Anne Arundel County and vice chairwoman of the Rules Committee, wondered yesterday whether the panel is trying to address faulty perceptions. But Sweeney said that courts cannot tell citizens that their perceptions, which may be based on television dramas, are overblown.

Without information about individual potential jurors, the public cannot assess the trial system, said Jack Murphy, executive director of the Maryland-Delaware-District of Columbia Press Association. Information that could indicate if the array of potential jurors, as well as those selected, reflected the demographics of a community would be hidden to the public.

"We want to know who got excluded, who got picked and who didn't get picked," he said. "You want to know if all the women got dropped off the jury, all the blacks, if all the Hispanics got dropped off."

News organizations find they have to fight - and then are denied - access to jury information that should be public now, said Eric N. Lieberman, deputy counsel and director of governmental affairs for The Washington Post. They might find it acceptable to lose access to potential juror lists if they are guaranteed access to the names of those sworn in as jurors.

Courts across Maryland have a hodgepodge of practices for publicly disseminating juror data. Some withhold all juror information, going so far as to seal it - if they place it in the court file at all. Others place the entire jury pool list in the court file once a trial ends.

Juror information is valuable for jury consultants, who are rarely tapped for Maryland trials but who profile the type of juror desirable for one side or the other and might investigate potential jurors, said lawyer Albert D. Brault.

He said that insurers he represents want juror information so that they can evaluate juror perceptions.

Jurors are told not to speak to anyone about a trial until it ends. Sweeney is among the judges who encourage them to talk to the lawyers afterward, which helps the attorneys on both sides assess how they've come across.

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