The first day and step in any trial, civil or criminal, is to select a jury.
The qualifications for jurors in the State of Florida are relatively simple. To qualify as a juror, the person must be a U.S. citizen who is a legal resident of Florida as well as the county where the trial is being conducted. Additionally, the person must have a driver’s license. If a person meets these criteria, chances are at some point in their lives, they will receive a jury summons.
While the ways to qualify for being a juror are relatively simple, there are much more specific circumstances that can disqualify jurors from serving. After all, the whole point of selecting a jury, which is fundamental to our system of justice and to which both civil and criminal clients are entitled, is to select a fair cross-section of the community that will be impartial. Because jurors must listen attentively and fairly to the evidence, those in jobs that would make that requirement difficult may be disqualified from serving. Additionally, those with physical limitations or familial obligations may also be disqualified. Some of the disqualifications are automatic; some must be requested.
When prospective jurors arrive at the courthouse, they usually fill out a questionnaire that has been approved by the Florida Supreme Court. Those questionnaires can help determine jurors who should be statutorily disqualified.
According to Florida Stat. sec. 40.013, among some of the circumstances that render one disqualified automatically from serving are: persons who are under prosecution for any crime; the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, or any Cabinet officer, clerk of court, or judge; any full-time federal state, or local law enforcement officer (unless that person chooses to serve), and any person interested in any issue to be tried. Additionally, jurors who have been summoned and reported for service are exempt from serving again for one year. Those who may be disqualified upon request are any expectant mothers and any parents who are not employed full time and have custody of a child under 6 years old; a practicing attorney, a practicing physician, or a physically infirm person (with the exception, under most circumstances, of those who are hearing impaired and wish to serve as a juror); those upon whom jury service would impose extreme hardship, inconvenience, or public necessity and are able to show same; a person 70 years of age or older; a person who is the caregiver of one who suffers from some sort of mental incapacity and is incapable of caring for themselves.
After the questionnaires have been completed, the action jury selection process, known as voir dire, or “to speak the truth,” begins. Voir dire involves lawyers for both sides questioning the venire, or jury pool, to gauge the jurors’ beliefs and attitudes about certain issues that are relevant to the case. In addition to those jurors that are dismissed due to statutorily disqualification, both lawyers are allowed to challenge the selection of certain jurors in the interest of creating a jury that will be fair and impartial to both sides. The lawyers may challenge any juror for cause. “For cause” refers to a juror who is biased, prejudiced, has already formed an opinion about the case or has an interest in its outcome. Additionally, both lawyers are permitted three preemptory challenges, or strikes, to the venire. Preemptory challenges permit a party to remove a prospective juror without giving a reason for the removal as long as it is not based on race or gender. Usually preemptory challenges are used when an attorney feels that the juror is partial about a particular topic but can’t demonstrate it under the “for cause” category. The end result is a jury consisting of six men and/or women sitting on circuit and county civil jury trials, usually with one alternate.
Jury selection may seem like a tedious process. However, it is one that is fundamental to our court system to ensure that both parties receive a fair trial by citizens that will keep an open mind and listen to both sides of the case.