Judges- Please Don't Place Artificial Time Limits on Voir Dire and Opening Statements
Thomas Jefferson once wrote that trial by jury is “the only anchor ever yet imagined by man by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution….”
Powerful words that define the balance of powers in this country. An important equalizing concept that for the past 30 years, some judges have allowed to erode away because of congested courtrooms and fiscal concerns.
Well, it’s time to stop the erosion. A jury trial is a process that starts well before you call your first witness. In order to have a fair trial you need to have fair and impartial jurors and the only way you can make sure this happens is to allow attorneys to question the people who may eventually end up on the jury panel.
It takes time and effort to do this. It’s not easy to find out how a potential juror really feels about a subject or issue unless you are afforded the opportunity to engage that juror and ask questions. You need to develop rapport. You need to push for answers. And most important, you need to make sure that when it’s all said and done, your client had a fair trial. No more and no less.
For these reasons, I’m tired of judges who artificially place time limits on voir dire. I’m also fed up with judges telling counsel before a trial starts how many days the court is going to “allow” for a jury trial.
If you’re a trial lawyer, you need to feel the same way. And if you’re a citizen of this country—someone who is afforded the right to trial under our Constitution and laws, then you also need to take a stand on this issue.
Isn’t the point of our justice system to get to the truth? A tool or process intended to be equally available to all of us whether we’re rich or poor, black or white, brown or purple or, a combination thereof?
For many, a trial by jury is someone’s last chance and opportunity to right a wrong? For all of us it’s a civilized way to level the playing field allowing a single citizen to hold another person, corporation or government accountable for their wrongs.
As trial lawyers, we need to let judges know that our clients have been harmed and have been forced to endure years of time and expense and, in many cases, a great deal of stress and sacrifice, to finally get their day in court. Judges need to be reminded that there is nothing wrong with lawyers conducting voir dire at a pace that the lawyer feels is necessary and proper, under the law and rules of court, so that a fair and impartial jury can be impaneled in your case.
My fellow trial lawyers, when a judge tells you he will only allow twenty minutes or an hour to conduct voir dire, you need to ask that judge one or more of the following questions- “How in the world can my client or I reasonably be expected to know, appreciate and understand what’s inside the minds of these prospective jurors in only 20 minutes?” What goal is being achieved by artificially limiting the time for voir dire?” Who’s best interest is being served?” And, “how is this fair to your client who has waited years to have his case finally go to trial before a jury of his peers?”
When it comes to opening statements, lawyers should also be allowed to spend as much time as they reasonably feel they need to give their opening statement to the jury. In my opinion, randomly limiting a lawyer’s opening statement to 20 or 45 minutes is tantamount to a judge standing up and shouting out to the world, “I don’t care what this case is about, how many witnesses will be called or, how important it is to the parties or society as a whole”, just get this part done in 20 minutes. Explain to me any other reasonable interpretation of such a random order.
Look, crowded courts shouldn’t diminish the civil, criminal and constitutional rights every individual is supposed to have in the United States of America. The lack of public funds should not result in the rights of American citizens being minimized or otherwise stepped on inside the courtroom doors.
While it’s true that a judge and jury can potentially have all of the power the law bestows, without all the facts and without a full and complete intelligent process, neither a judge or jury can deliver justice. Because of this, when it comes to our legal rights and civil liberties, we all need to stand up and make sure the judges do their job and enforce the Constitution.
We also need to make sure that judges who are appointed or elected to the bench continue to place the rights of citizens ahead of the court’s “schedule” or artificially self-imposed time restrictions to voir dire, opening statements and length of jury trials.