Differences Between State and Federal Courts Part 4: Jury Selection

Barry M. Wax

See Part 1: Can I Be Tried for the Same Crime in Both State and Federal Court?

See Part 2: The Discovery Process and Disclosure of Witnesses

See Part 3: Plea Negotiations & Plea Agreements

We’ve been exploring the differences between state and federal courts in recent months as these key differences can often make or break a case. It’s important for attorneys, plaintiffs, and defendants to understand the differences and prepare themselves appropriately for the battle to come.

Another area where the process will look different happens mostly behind the scenes during a given trial: the jury selection process. The Sixth Amendment and Supreme Court rulings guarantee the right to a jury trial in both state and federal court.

The jury selection process seats the men and women of the jury along with alternates. Large pools of eligible jurors will be whittled down to make sure the best and most impartial group sits in on the trial.

Juror eligibility

Eligibility differs in state and federal courts. Everyone who is eligible for a state court trial will be eligible for a federal trial, but not everyone who is eligible for a federal trial will be eligible for a state court.

In state court, only those who live within the county where the trial takes place will be eligible to serve on the jury. For example, someone who lives in Miami-Dade County won’t be eligible to serve on a state court jury trial that takes place in Monroe County. In federal court, anyone who lives in the federal district where the trial takes place is eligible to sit on the jury. This means a wider net can be cast and it’s likely to result in a more geographically diverse jury. For instance, the Southern District of Florida includes Broward, Miami-Dade, Highlands, Indian River, Martin, Monroe, Okeechobee, Palm Beach, and St. Lucie Counties. Anyone who lives in these counties may be eligible for a federal court trial in the district. Typically though, the pool of potential jurors is drawn from the counties closest to where the trial will be taking place. Federal court cases in the Southern District take place in Fort Lauderdale, Fort Pierce, Key West, Miami, and West Palm Beach.

Number of jurors

The number of jurors will depend on the location and type of case being tried. Six jurors and one alternate will generally be selected for cases in Florida Circuit and County Court cases. The exception is for cases where the death penalty is a possible sentence. In those trials, 12 jurors and several alternates are chosen.

Federal civil cases will have either six or twelve jurors along with alternates. Federal criminal cases will always have 12 jurors.

Attorney role in jury selection

Once the pool of potential jurors is selected, the process of weeding out the crowd begins. That is called voir dire. In state court, the attorneys will play a major role in this portion of the trial. After the judge asks a series of preliminary questions, the attorneys are permitted to question the jurors to ensure no juror possesses a bias that would prevent them from being fair and impartial. This could include a relationship with someone impacted by the case or someone who experienced a similar crime, strong opinions about the case, employment, family status, and many other issues attorneys will delve into to reveal any hidden prejudices or biases. Any perceived biases can render a potential juror subject to removal from the jury pool.

In federal court, however, attorneys are not automatically given the opportunity to question jurors. Instead, the judge is in charge of the jury selection process. This doesn’t mean attorneys never get to question jurors in federal court. In many instances judges will exercise discretion and permit lawyers a limited amount of questions to the potential jurors. However, attorneys are permitted to submit proposed voir dire questions for the jurors in writing, and the judge will decide which, if any, to pose to the panel.

Once the questioning of the jury panel is complete, the attorneys for each side exercise “Challenges” to specific members of the potential pool of jurors. These Challenges are either “for cause” or “peremptory.” A “peremptory” challenge is exercised for any reason the attorney or his client want to remove that particular juror, but it cannot be for a discriminatory purpose. A discriminatory purose would be base upon a juror’s ethnicity, gender and other recognized discriminatory factor. A “for cause” challenge is based upon a legal reason. For example, if a juror states she cannot find the defendant not guilty unless he testifies, that is a reason to strike that juror for cause, because a defendant has an absolute right to remain silent and not testify.

The exercise of challenges against individual jurors requires experience in evaluating a person’s character and truthfulness, among other factors. It takes a keen understanding of the human condition and an ability to uncover hidden biases and motives. Having an attorney with many years of jury trial experience is a crucial factor in any decision about who to hire to represent you. Attorney Barry M. Wax has decades of experience in both state and federal jury trials and gives people in trouble the ability to make the right choices to regain control of their lives. Contact us today.

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