A trial consultant tells the story of working on a Tacoma DUI case last year when she discovered an interesting fact about one of the jurors. The juror had listed on her Facebook page that Erin Brockovich was her hero. Brockovich was the paralegal who famously took on a California utility in a class action suit, helping to secure a $333 million settlement for the plaintiffs. The consultant worked for the defendant, though — the company being sued by the consumer. There was only one thing to do: Recommend to her client, defense counsel, that the juror be removed from the panel.
The jury selection process, or “voir dire,” helps to ensure a fair, impartial tribunal. Both plaintiff and defense attorneys interview potential jurors, looking for obvious bias. Court rules allow a certain number of strikes per party, some for stated reasons and some for reasons known only to the attorney. It’s the attorneys’ job to identify jurors who will be open or sympathetic to their clients. If you represent a utility that is accused of poisoning the drinking water of an entire town over a period of 20 or 30 years, and Erin Brockovich shows up for jury duty, you would ask that she be excused.
In the pre-Internet days, jurors would complete questionnaires that provided basic information — name, age, marital status and the like. Prospective jurors would then be asked questions by the attorney for each side, with the judge presiding. Court rules impose certain limits on the questions attorneys can ask, partially in an effort to protect jurors’ privacy. A prime example is that an attorney cannot ask a prospective juror about his political affiliations.
But there’s a good chance that that information, and so much more, is available on the Internet, and there aren’t rules about using the Internet for jury research — yet.