ACLU Opposes Proposed Rule That Would Make Jurors Anonymous in Criminal Trials

Affiliate: ACLU of Virginia
September 1, 2009 12:00 am

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Group is Prepared to Mount Legal Challenge if Rule is Adopted

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Richmond, VA – The ACLU of Virginia has submitted comments to the Virginia Supreme Court asking it not to approve a proposed rule that would make jurors anonymous in all state court criminal trials. The civil liberties organization says the proposed rule is unconstitutional and that it is prepared to mount a legal challenge if it is adopted.

“Openness is essential to a fair judicial system, which is why U.S. courts have universally rejected anything that resembles Star Chamber justice,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “Simply put, trials must be open to the public and that includes knowing the identities of jurors who are deciding guilt or innocence.”

“There are certainly circumstances when the withholding of jurors’ identities is justified,” added Willis, “but those are the exceptions, not the rule. This proposal makes them the rule.”

The proposed rule is the result of a 2008 law that allows a court to protect the identities of jurors when it finds there is a likelihood of bribery, tampering, injury or harassment. The 2008 law directs the Virginia Supreme Court to issue rules for its implementation as regards the protection of jurors’ personal information. In April, the Advisory Committee on Rules of the Supreme Court issued proposed rule 3A:14.1, which would make all jurors anonymous. The Supreme Court is taking public comments on the Committee’s proposal through today.

In comments submitted earlier today, ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca Glenberg wrote that the U.S. Supreme Court requires the jury selection process and trials to be open to the public and that federal appellate courts have followed the high court’s reasoning in holding that names and addresses of jurors must be made available to the public. The appellate rulings, including one from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, “demonstrate that the presumption must always be in favor of keeping the identities of jurors open,” writes Glenberg.

“We’re stunned by the Advisory Committee’s proposals,” added Willis. “First, the committee members were surely aware of the court cases holding that jurors’ identities must be public information. Second, we still can’t figure out how the Advisory Committee concluded that a law allowing jurors’ identities to be shielded in limited circumstances should be interpreted to mean that jurors’ identities should be shielded in all circumstances.”

The ACLU does not know of any other state that shields jurors’ identities in all cases.

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