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California Bill Removes Unreasonable Limits on Voir Dire

The California Senate recently passed legislation intended to promote fair and impartial juries in California courtrooms. Senate Bill 658 would address the issue of unreasonable and arbitrary restrictions on attorney examination of potential members of a jury.

What Is Voir Dire?

During voir dire, a panel of prospective jurors answers questions about their qualifications to sit as jurors in the case. The examination is conducted by the judge and the parties’ attorneys. The goal is to determine whether any of the prospective jurors have any personal interest in the case or know of any reason why they cannot render an impartial verdict.

Members of the panel may be challenged for cause if the examination reveals that they might be prejudiced. The judge will excuse an individual from the panel if the cause raised in the challenge is sufficient. There is no limit to the number of challenges for cause. Both parties also have a right to a certain number of challenges for which no cause is necessary, known as peremptory challenges.

Under California’s Trial Jury Selection and Management Act, the trial judge begins voir dire with an initial examination to disclose grounds for excuses for cause. Next, counsel for both parties may ask questions, which enables the attorneys “to intelligently exercise both preemptory challenges and challenges for cause.”

The statute prohibits a court from arbitrarily or unreasonably refusing to submit a reasonable written questionnaire to the jury if requested by counsel. It further states that the parties should be provided reasonable time to evaluate the responses to the questionnaire, if utilized, before oral questioning commences. Under the Trial Jury Selection and Management Act, the trial judge should consider, among other criteria, any unique or complex elements in the case when exercising his or her discretion as to the form and subject matter of voir dire questions.

Changes to Voir Dire Under SB 658

Senate Bill 658, which is authored by Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), addresses the issue of arbitrary and unreasonable restrictions on the voir dire process. Some courts have restricted voir dire to as little as 30 minutes in unlimited civil jurisdiction cases.

Specifically, SB 658 would require that the parties be provided reasonable time to evaluate the responses to a questionnaire, if utilized, before oral questioning commences. The bill would also require a trial judge to consider specific factors in conducting voir dire and prohibit the judge from establishing an inflexible time limit policy for the jury examination process. The bill would also require a judge in civil trials to provide the parties with both the alphabetical list and the list of prospective jurors in the order in which they will be called.

As San Diego injury lawyers, we know that issues often unexpectedly arise once jury selection has begun. The proposed bill will preserve flexibility in the voir dire process and allow counsel to take additional time if needed. If passed, SB 658 will benefit all litigants by maintaining integrity of the Constitution’s right to a jury trial.

SB 658 is now pending before the California Assembly. We will continue to post updates as they become available.

If you or someone you love has suffered serious harm due to someone else’s negligence, don’t hesitate to contact a San Diego lawyer at the Law Offices of Robert Vaage for a free consultation.