URCrP 18

Advisory Committee Notes

Paragraph (b) The preliminary statement of the case does not serve the same purpose as the opening statement presented after the jury is selected. The preliminary statement of the case serves only to provide a brief context in which the jurors might more knowledgeably answer questions during voir dire. A preliminary opening statement is not required and may serve no useful purpose in short trials or trials with relatively simple issues. The judge should be particularly attuned to prevent argument or posturing at this early stage of the trial.

Paragraph (e)(14). The Utah Supreme Court has noted a tendency of trial court judges to rule against a challenge for cause in the face of legitimate questions about a juror's biases. The Supreme Court limited the following admonition to capital cases, but it is a sound philosophy even in trials of lesser consequence.

[W]e take this opportunity to address an issue of growing concern to this court. We are perplexed by the trial courts' frequent insistence on passing jurors for cause in death penalty cases when legitimate concerns about their suitability have been raised during voir dire. While the abuse-of-discretion standard of review affords trial courts wide latitude in making their for-cause determinations, we are troubled by their tendency to "push the edge of the envelope," especially when capital voir dire panels are so large and the death penalty is at issue. Moreover, capital cases are extremely costly, in terms of both time and money. Passing questionable jurors increases the drain on the state's resources and jeopardizes an otherwise valid conviction and/or sentence. ... If a party raises legitimate questions as to a potential juror's beliefs, biases, or physical ability to serve, the potential juror should be struck for cause, even where it would not be legally erroneous to refuse. State v. Carter, 888 P.2d 629 (Utah 1995).

In determining challenges for cause, the task of the judge is to find the proper balance. It is not the judge's duty to seat a jury from a too-small venire panel or to seat a jury as quickly as possible. Although thorough questioning of a juror to determine the existence, nature and extent of a bias is appropriate, it is not the judge's duty to extract the "right" answer from or to "rehabilitate" a juror. The judge should accept honest answers to understood questions and, based on that evidence, make the sometimes difficult decision to seat only those jurors the judge is convinced will act fairly and impartially. This higher duty demands a sufficient venire panel and sufficient voir dire. The trial court judge enjoys considerable discretion in limiting voir dire when there is no apparent link between a question and potential bias, but "when proposed voir dire questions go directly to the existence of an actual bias, that discretion disappears. The trial court must allow such inquiries." The court should ensure the parties have a meaningful opportunity to explore grounds for challenges for cause and to ask follow-up questions, either through direct questioning or questioning by the court.

The objective of a challenge for cause is to remove from the venire panel persons who cannot act impartially in deliberating upon a verdict. The lack of impartiality may be due to some bias for or against one of the parties; it may be due to an opinion about the subject matter of the action or about the action itself. The civil rules of procedure have a few - and the criminal rules many more - specific circumstances, usually a relationship with a party or a circumstance of the juror, from which the bias of the juror is inferred. In addition to these enumerated grounds for a challenge for cause, both the civil rules and the criminal rules close with the following grounds: formulation by the juror of a state of mind that will prevent the juror from acting impartially. However, the rules go on to provide that no person shall be disqualified as a juror by reason of having formed an opinion upon the matter if it satisfactorily appears to the court that the person will, notwithstanding that opinion, act impartially.

The amendments focus on the "state of mind" clause. In determining whether a person can act impartially, the court should focus not only on that person's state of mind but should consider the totality of the circumstances. These circumstances might include the experiences, conduct, statements, opinions, or associations of the juror. Rather than determining that the juror is "prevented" from acting impartially, the court should determine whether the juror "is not likely to act impartially." These amendments conform to the directive of the Supreme Court: If there is a legitimate question about the ability of a person to act impartially, the court should remove that person from the panel.

There is no need to modify this determination with the statement that a juror who can set aside an opinion based on public journals, rumors or common notoriety and act impartially should not be struck. Having read or heard of the matter and even having an opinion about the matter do not meet the standard of the rule. Well-informed and involved citizens are not automatically to be disqualified from jury service. Sound public policy supports knowledgeable, involved citizens as jurors. The challenge for the court is to evaluate the impact of this extra-judicial information on the ability of the person to act impartially. Information and opinions about the case remain relevant to but not determinative of the question: "Will the person be a fair and impartial juror?"

In stating that no person may serve as a juror unless the judge is "convinced" the juror will act impartially, the Committee uses the term "convinced" advisedly. The term is not intended to suggest the application of a clear and convincing standard of proof in determining juror impartiality, such a high standard being contrary to the Committee's objectives. Nor is the term intended to undermine the long-held presumption that potential jurors who satisfy the basic requirements imposed by statutes and rules are qualified to serve. Rather, the term is intended to encourage the trial judge to be thorough and deliberative in evaluating challenges for cause. Although not an evidentiary standard at all, the term "convinced" implies a high standard for judicial decision-making. Review of the decision should remain limited to an abuse of discretion.

This new standard for challenges for cause represents a balance more easily stated than achieved. These amendments encourage judges to exercise greater care in evaluating challenges for cause and to resolve legitimate doubts in favor of removal. This may mean some jurors now removed by peremptory challenge will be removed instead for cause. It may also mean the court will have to summon more prospective jurors for voir dire. Whether lawyers will use fewer peremptory challenges will have to await the judgment of experience.