Criticism nixes juror-ID shield

A committee of the Virginia Supreme Court has withdrawn a controversial proposal to make jurors anonymous in all state court criminal trials. The committee’s apparent turnabout comes as a result of strong criticism from open government advocates, who argued that allowing the public to know jurors’ identities is an essential part of a fair and accountable judicial system.

The Virginia Supreme Court’s Advisory Committee on Rules of the Court first proposed making all juries anonymous earlier this year, but the measure soon drew fire from the ACLU of Virginia, the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, and the Virginia Press Association. Citing legal precedents, the ACLU promised to challenge the rule in court if it were adopted.

“We are pleased that the Rules Committee is abandoning its ill-conceived efforts to make all jurors anonymous,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “We understand wanting to protect jurors, but history tells us that justice only works when it is transparent.”

The proposed rule to make jurors anonymous was 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. That law directed the Virginia Supreme Court to issue rules for its implementation. In May 2009, the Court’s Advisory Committee drafted rules stating that all jurors be anonymous in all criminal trials, a proposal that appeared to undermine the purpose of the law itself. The Supreme Court accepted public comments on the Committee’s proposal until September 1. (See comments submitted by ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca K. Glenberg at www.acluva.org/newsreleases2009/Sep1.html#comments)

The Advisory Committee has now released a revised draft rule that does not make all juries anonymous, but allows a judge, upon a finding of “good cause,” to protect the identities of jurors in instances where anonymity is warranted. The revised proposal is available online www.courts.state.va.us/news/draft_revisions_rules/2009_10_revised_juror%20anonymity_rule.pdf) and will not be voted on until May 2010. Comments from the public are invited.

“We’re not yet ready to endorse the revised rules, but they are a dramatic improvement over the old ones,” added Willis. “Our stance has shifted significantly, from outright opposition to an illegal proposal to seeking modifications to improve the new one.”

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

  

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