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The Superior Court will implement the Panel Voir Dire Pilot Project beginning February 2, 2015. The Project was designed as a result of a joint effort by the Superior Court, under the leadership of Chief Justice Judith Fabricant, and the Superior Court Implementation Subcommittee of the Supreme Judicial Court Committee on Juror Voir Dire.1 The purpose of the Project is to contribute significantly to the ongoing evaluation by the Judiciary and members of the bar as to the efficacy of group or “panel” voir dire in jury selections that will include questioning by attorneys or self-represented parties pursuant to St. 2014, c. 254, § 2, Superior Court Standing Order 1-15 (“Participation in Juror Voir Dire by Attorneys and Self-Represented Parties”), and any rules, protocols, or guidelines the Supreme Judicial Court or the Superior Court may hereafter adopt or approve relative to the conduct of such questioning.
The principal objective is to employ a largely uniform “panel voir dire” method in selected civil and criminal sessions during 2015, in order to obtain experience and data from trial judges, attorneys, court officers, clerks, court reporters, jurors, the Office of Jury Commissioner, and other identified stakeholders concerning the effectiveness and benefits of a panel method as compared to individual questioning. Over the next year, that experience and data will be the subject of detailed consideration by the Supreme Judicial Court Committee on Voir Dire, in an effort by the Judiciary to identify best practices, with due regard to the goals of permitting attorneys and self-represented parties a fair and meaningful opportunity to participate in voir dire, supporting all stakeholders’ efforts to identify inappropriate bias, and conducting jury selection with reasonable expedition while always respecting the dignity and privacy of each potential juror.
Prior to February 2, 2015, the Superior Court will identify judges who volunteer to participate in the Pilot Project, and who are assigned to sit in active trial sessions during the 2015 calendar year. The Court will seek to involve judges sitting in at least 3 different counties, in an effort to generate useful data concerning the conduct of panel voir dire in different courthouses. Considering that there exist unique needs and concerns with respect to criminal cases (including legally-mandated individual voir dire on certain subject matters, the frequency of questioning as to highly sensitive personal issues or statutorily-protected information, the number of peremptory challenges in life-felony cases, and the responsibilities of Court Officers in criminal sessions), the Pilot Project will not involve life-felony cases at the outset.2 Prior to the commencement of each sitting of the judges who participate, the Superior Court will provide public notice of which judges/sessions are part of the Pilot Project on the Trial Court website as well as to major bar organizations.
As to all cases scheduled for trial in Pilot Project sessions, Superior Court Standing Order 1-15, and the following procedures, shall apply:
The Superior Court will solicit feedback from all participants and stakeholders, including the Office of Jury Commissioner (OJC), and the Court expects that members of the bar who participate in the Pilot Project will be willing to provide timely responses so that useful data may be gathered and analyzed to assess the efficacy of the panel voir dire method described herein. Questionnaires will be distributed to jurors, attorneys, and self-represented parties upon the conclusion of their trials, and responses will be welcomed immediately, when the events of the empanelment process are fresh in participants’ minds. To the extent parties generate transcripts of jury selections conducted in the Pilot Project, they are asked to notify the Session Clerk of the existence of the transcript.
The Court will seek to collect data and suggestions with respect to:
Special attention will be paid to practical concerns of panel questioning in sessions employing an electronic audio-recording system.
1 The Superior Court Implementation Subcommittee is chaired by Chief Justice Fabricant and Justice Peter Lauriat, and includes Justices Bertha D. Josephson, Maynard M. Kirpalani, and Robert C. Rufo, Douglas Sheff of the Massachusetts Bar Association, Mark Smith of the Boston Bar Association, Suffolk County ADA Mark Lee of the Massachusetts District Attorneys’ Association, and Carolyn McGowan of the Committee for Public Counsel Services. Former Chief Justice Barbara Rouse served on the Subcommittee ex officio until her retirement on November 30, 2014.
2 This is not intended to preclude a trial judge in a life-felony case from conducting, pursuant to Superior Court Standing Order 1-15 and in the exercise of his or her discretion, some form of group or “panel” voir dire outside the Pilot Project, but that circumstance is beyond the scope of the structured project.