Why Don't We Protect the Privacy of Jurors?

The case for making jury duty anonymous


Under the best of circumstances, jury duty is about as enjoyable as being trapped in an elevator with a Ronco salesman. You're yanked away from your job or domestic responsibilities, stuck in an airless bunker with lawyers who flunked out of charm school, forced to work with strangers and paid only a minimal stipend—and all this can go on for weeks or even months.

But one 79-year-old New York divorcee found out what jury duty is like when the circumstances are not the best. Ruth Jordan, a member of the jury in the trial of Tyco International executives Dennis Kozlowski and Mark Swartz, has not only had her name and photo spread around the world, but was ridiculed in New York newspapers for allegedly being stingy, snobbish, and paranoid.

The abuse occurred because she supposedly made a sympathetic signal to defense lawyers. That outrage prompted The Wall Street Journal's website and the New York Post to publish her name while the trial was underway, which is almost unheard of.

With that information out, Jordan soon got a hostile anonymous phone call and a letter she regarded as disturbing. So Judge Michael Obus declared a mistrial, citing "the notoriety that was brought to bear on one particular juror, whose name and background have been widely publicized in the media."

By that time, it was irrelevant that the abuse was unwarranted. The judge made a point of declaring that she did nothing wrong. His ire was directed at the press for disclosing her identity.

But if it's important to protect the privacy of jurors, why should their names be available in the first place? Obus could have sealed them at the outset. And a strong case can be made that jurors are entitled to anonymity as a matter of course.

After all, we impose severe burdens on them. Since the abolition of the draft, jury duty is about the only legal form of involuntary servitude. Jurors often undergo interrogation about embarrassing personal matters, sometimes endure stomach-turning exhibits, and may be separated from their family and friends for long periods of time.

These inconveniences may not be avoidable. But loss of privacy and fear of retribution are. A friend of mine who was in the pool for a murder case found several fierce-looking associates of the defendant, apparently gang members, staring ominously at potential jurors—whose names were a matter of public record. One federal appeals court has said, "As judges, we are aware that, even in routine criminal cases, (jurors) are often uncomfortable with disclosure of their names and addresses to a defendant."

That's not the only worry. A study by Paula Hannaford, a lawyer with the National Center for State Courts, notes that the data collected for jury service "links many aspects of a person's life—home, family, work, citizenship and residency status, criminal history and finances—in a single, convenient record, and no effort is made to place restrictions on public access to information that is not ordinarily in the public domain."

Some judges have tried keeping names confidential and identifying jurors only by number. But defense lawyers often object, arguing that the secrecy may cause jurors to see the defendant as dangerous. Any taint caused by the selective use of anonymity, however, would vanish if it were the rule.

The news media insist names are important to make juries accountable to the public. But we don't let cameras into jury deliberations, and we don't publish transcripts of those discussions, because we know the value of confidentiality. Jurors are not government officials who must answer to the citizenry for their decisions. If some of them fall short, it's the job of the judge, not the news media or the public, to take remedial action.

As for the value of interviewing jurors afterward, as various news organizations did in the Tyco case, fear not: Some jurors will always be eager to rush to the nearest TV camera. But those who prefer to avoid uninformed second-guessing and catty put-downs should be allowed to go in peace.

Granting jurors anonymity in all criminal trials would make service more attractive and improve the quality of deliberations. Since other demographic information about jurors would remain available, the public would lose no crucial knowledge—and it would gain a better system of justice.

Jury service is a civic responsibility as important as voting. If we let citizens vote in elections with the protection of secrecy, why do jurors deserve less?


Editor's Note: Steve Chapman is currently on vacation. This column was originally published in April 2004.