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Maryland Court of Appeals Sticks With “Limited Voir Dire”

March 18, 2014 By Abby V. Uzupis

On February 21, 2014 the Court of Appeals in Pearson v. State declined to abandon the doctrine of “limited voir dire” in favor of “intelligent use voir dire,” which is followed by an overwhelming majority of jurisdictions in the United States.  Voir dire is the process by which a prospective juror is questioned about her background and beliefs in order to determine whether or not she would be biased and/or prejudiced were she selected to sit on a jury.  In Maryland, the courts have adopted the view that voir dire questions should be limited – i.e “limited voir dire.”  In particular, the sole purpose of voir dire is to create a fair and impartial jury by determining a specific reason why a juror should not be allowed to sit on a jury.  Questions that are not directed at finding a specific reason for disqualification or are merely used to “fish” for information about the jurors will not be questions that the court is required to ask during voir dire.

On the flip side, many states adhere to the view that voir dire should be a time where attorneys are able to gain information about the jurors so that they may make “intelligent use” of their peremptory challenges.  Peremptory challenges refer to an attorney’s right (subject to certain constitutional protections) to reject a potential juror without giving the court a specific reason for the challenge.  In other words, “intelligent use” states believe that attorneys should be able to get information during voir dire that they can use to make reasoned and tactical decisions about which jurors they do not want on their jury.  Currently, 48 states – excluding Maryland and California – follow the “intelligent use” standard. 

While some justices on the Court of Appeals called for the move to “intelligent use voir dire,” the majority in Pearson held that it was not the Court’s place to unilaterally make the transition from limited to intelligent use.  Rather, the Court stated that it would be “imprudent for [the Court] to address this far-reaching issue without the benefit of study regarding the possible ramifications.”  The Court called upon the Standing Committee of Rules of Practice and Procedure to gather more information and make a recommendation about a possible transition.

Although Pearson dealt with voir dire questions in a criminal case, there is potential for spill over into the civil arena.  In this case, the Court has spoken clearly about its willingness to entertain a change to “intelligent use” and about the scope of questions permitted during voir dire.  Civil attorneys are well-advised to read Pearson before seeking to push back against Maryland’s limited use standard.