The impact of new rules established by the Indiana Supreme Court to address concerns raised by jurors on safety and privacy is now becoming evident. The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette took on this issue in a recent editorial and weighed a juror’s rights versus the need for open operations of the criminal justice system.

Hoosier State Press Association
Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette

(Editor’s note: The Indiana Supreme Court implemented new jury rules Jan. 1, 2003, to address concerns raised by jurors on safety and privacy. The impact of the new rules is now becoming evident. The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette took on this issue in the following editorial.)

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (April 2004) — New state court rules and local court practices designed to protect the privacy of people who serve on juries have improperly cast a veil over a key part of court operations that should be open, tainting the credibility of the criminal justice system.

The issue – whether the identity of jurors in Indiana trials should be a public record – is indeed difficult. Judges rightly do not want jurors to be harassed, threatened or lobbied during trials. Serving on a jury can be difficult enough because of the time commitment, forced absence from work and separation from families.

But forever sealing the identity of jurors hides from the public a vital ingredient of the criminal justice system. Researchers, attorneys, historians, journalists, the public – all may want to ask jurors why and how their decision was reached, possibly the day after an important trial concludes or maybe decades later.

Evidence of jury tampering or previously unknown connections between a juror and a key trial player might arise hours or years after a high-profile trial, and yet the public may never be aware of them without journalists or independent investigators being able to identify jurors.

The Indiana Supreme Court adopted rules that limit personal information about each juror to what is disclosed in open court – generally, their names only. However, because Allen County identifies jurors and prospective jurors by numbers, their names are not mentioned in open court – thereby keeping their identity a secret.

At least one Indiana Supreme Court Justice, Brent Dickson, understands the problem the combination of the two policies pose. “We intensely want good, fair people serving on juries,” he told writer Niki Kelly for her Sunday story on the issue. “On the other hand, completely foreclosing access for public oversight is equally disturbing.”

Allen Superior Court Judge Fran Gull believes jury members are flat-out entitled to privacy. Jurors have told her about being contacted by reporters and attorneys after a trial, and “they don’t like it,” Gull said. “They think it’s an invasion of their privacy.”

Jurors, however, can always decline to talk, and Gull’s willingness to shield information that should be public is wrong.

In fact, judges’ authority to unilaterally make this decision is troubling and raises questions about separation of powers. The General Assembly has long been the arbiter of what information is public and what is not, and this is a decision that should rest with the legislature. The state’s constitution clearly calls for courts to be open, while it says nothing about juror privacy.

Some of the courts’ concerns have merit. Jurors hearing a controversial or highly publicized case should not be open targets for criticism or attempts to sway their decisions. And some may fear for their safety. Even under the new rules, however, defense attorneys as well as the prosecution have access to juror information.

One acceptable compromise would call for the courts to add the names of jurors to the case file after the verdict is immediately rendered, keeping their identity secret during a trial. Jurors should not be contacted about a case during a trial, and this step would fulfill an important goal.

Other compromises are possible but hardly acceptable. One would seal the jurors’ names and require anyone who wants them to petition the court with a valid reason. Such limitations on records that should be open are dangerous because too many officials err on the side of secrecy, and any citizen generally should be able to obtain them without giving a reason.

Another compromise might give only credentialed journalists access, though records open to journalists should generally be open to everyone. Or, the courts could consider adding a delay from the end of the trial to the posting of the juror names – perhaps a week or a month – to allow any hostility from a controversial verdict to die down.

All of these compromises are problematic.

Any attempts to plug a remaining loophole would be even more troublesome. Jurors have to be paid, and county auditors’ records of distributing county money are public. Hoosiers have reasons to be concerned about any attempts to start hiding the names of people or companies that receive tax dollars.

The Supreme Court should reconsider its rule. Absent that step, the General Assembly should establish a means for the records to become public, preferably requiring the jurors’ names be added to the case file after the conclusion of a trial.

When six or 12 people determine the fate of a criminal defendant or civil litigant, they have made a decision by and for the public. Their names should be a public record.