In a ruling that could have far-reaching effects on the handling of high-profile trials, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday that the media has a presumptive right of access to the names of jurors, and that a Pittsburgh federal judge erred when he sought to empanel an anonymous jury in the corruption trial of former Allegheny County coroner Cyril H. Wecht.
"The prospect that the press might publish background stories about the jurors is not a legally sufficient reason to withhold the jurors’ names from the public. Although such stories might make some jurors less willing to serve or more distracted from the case, this is a necessary cost of the openness of the judicial process," 3rd Circuit Judge D. Brooks Smith wrote in United States v. Wecht.
The court’s 118-page decision included a lengthy dissent by Senior 3rd Circuit Judge Franklin S. Van Antwerpen that said the ruling "effectively creates a new constitutional right" and "sets a precedent of permitting our court to micro-manage trial procedures established by the district courts."
Van Antwerpen complained that "requiring district courts to bow to media demands to know the names of prospective jurors would certainly impair the public good in many cases."
Frankly, I don’t think this ruling is a big deal, for two reasons.
First, jurors generally know if they’re going to serve in a high profile case. If they did not already know it was a big case, the lawyers will almost always tell them during voir dire. Maybe the plaintiff’s lawyer mentions it because they think juries award bigger numbers in "big" cases; maybe the defense attorney mentions it because they think that jurors pay more attention in "important" cases.
If a juror has a problem serving in an high-profile case, they’ll find a way out. Usually the problem is the opposite: too many jurors want to serve on a high-profile case so they can later give an interview or, in rare cases, write a book.
Second, I don’t believe that "the public" or "the media" has a big influence on juror’s decisions. Spouses have a big influence. Friends and coworkers have a big influence. When reaching a decision in a high profile case, most jurors don’t worry about what some morning commuter who skims over their name will think about the verdict they rendered, they worry — agonize — over what they will tell people they know, who will all know the details of the case whether it’s high profile or not.
Slightly increasing the likelihood that a newspaper will reveal their name, which I still consider a slim possibility unless the juror consents, won’t change that dynamic.