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One of the main reasons for all the waiting in many courts is the long and sometimes pointless interrogations known as voir dire. Scene: a maple-paneled room in Manhattan Supreme Court. At issue: a small drug sale. "Are you living with anybody?" the defense lawyer asks a middle-aged widow. The woman looks uncomfortable. "We're not gossip columnists," the judge intervenes. "We only want to ask questions that determine if you are a fair and impartial juror. Many people nowadays live together." The woman says she lives alone. The questioning continues.
"The worst thing is not the irrelevant questions," says one survivor of voir dire, "but the fact that you're locked into a dingy room with 30 other would-be jurors and two or more lawyers, who then proceed to pound each of you with the same questions. This can take a half-hour or more for each juror, and then you have to hear it all over and over again. After a day or so, you'll grab at anything."
If all the questioning fails to produce any sign of prejudice or other unfitness, finally, an attorney can still ban a juror by exercising one of his peremptory challenges (the number for each side generally ranges from four to ten, though the total for the defense goes higher in criminal cases in some states). The lawyer need not give any reason, or even have any. "It's very upsetting to get bounced," says John Shore, a scientist at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington. "To be denied because you're too smart, or because you're the wrong race or socioeconomic groupthat's nonsense."
"It's common for the jury-selection process to take longer than the trial itself," notes New York Supreme Court Justice Arnold Fraiman. That complaint is hard to document, but a new study by three professors at the City University of New York does show that voir dire in an average felony trial in New York City takes eight hours over the course of 2½ days. The professors estimate that New York City judges trying felony cases spend at least one-third of their time on jury selection, and that one basic reform could provide the equivalent in man-hours of 20 extra judges, amounting in effect to a minimum of $9 million in annual savings.
That basic reform is to let the judges question prospective jurors, as they now do in the federal courts and in 22 states. (In England, a court officer first weeds out ineligible candidates, such as lawyers, and the judge may ask further questions.) Though a federal judge may consider questions from the opposing lawyers, he is apt simply to ask the prospective jurors about their general ability to reach a fair verdict. The average time spent on jury selection in federal court is two hours, and, according to the C.U.N.Y. study, there is no evidence that longer voir dire significantly changes the rate of conviction.
The most annoying problem to prospective jurors, the waiting around, has actually been solved already, but the solution is spreading through the system with the speed of a glacier. Says Houston's District Court Judge Shearn Smith, chairman of the Harris County jury committee: "When I became a judge, I went down to the jury assembly room, and I found an unhappy group of citizens. They were not unhappy about being called, but about sitting and