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Arizona Supreme Court affirms constitutionality of anonymous juries

Arizona Supreme Court affirms constitutionality of anonymous juries

The court decided the right to juror privacy supersedes any presumptive right to transparency under the First Amendment.

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In a unanimous decision on Tuesday, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled against the petitioners in a case involving a presumptive First Amendment right to juror names.

The case stems from two COVID-era criminal trials in rural Cochise County, where juror names remained anonymous during and after the trial.

The judge in those cases referred to the jurors by numbers instead of their names, masking the jurors’ identities. Before COVID-19, reporters could view the juror selection process in person and see the jurors participating in a trial.

Terri Jo Neff, a freelance journalist based in Cochise County, and David Morgan, publisher of the Cochise County Record, filed special actions in each case over the restrictive procedures. Morgan is a former Courthouse News employee.

The Arizona Supreme Court cited Article 2 Section 8 of the Arizona Constitution in supporting an individual’s right to privacy “[n]o person shall be disturbed in his private … without [the] authority of law.”

“[The] state plainly has a compelling interest in enforcing it to protect juror privacy,” Justice Clint Bolick wrote, in his concurrence with the majority decision.

In April, the journalists represented by Evan Stele from the First Amendment Clinic at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law argued that transparency in the judicial process served a compelling interest.

Steele argued that juror transparency could play a role in ensuring racial dynamics are in accordance with the decency that should be afforded to a defendant.

However, in Tuesday’s findings, Vice Chief Justice Timmer argued that courts did not divulge the jurors’ names compulsorily. She claimed they’re typically disclosed during the “voir dire” or juror examination process, but not in any other standard interest.

“The superior court in Cochise County uses ‘innominate juries’ for all criminal jury trials,” she wrote, in the majority opinion. “Under that procedure, prospective and impaneled jurors are referred to by numbers rather than by names throughout open-court proceedings, although the court and the parties know their identities. Consequently, although voir dire examinations and trials are open for public viewing, observers are not provided jurors’ names absent order of the court.”

Timmer continued by concluding fairness in the realm of juror selection may be safeguarded by opposing parties and the time-tested juror selection process.

“Accessing jurors’ names would not significantly add to the public’s ability to assure itself that voir dire is fairly conducted or to check the courts in disregarding established standards for jury selection,” she wrote.

She added that modern times present a new compelling interest in privacy.

“[In] this internet age, where jurors’ names can trigger lightning-fast access to a wealth of biographical information, including addresses, any slightly positive role in divulging jurors’ names to the public is outweighed by the risk to jury integrity,” she wrote.

Later, Timmer dismissed the notion that names would compel jurors to be more forthcoming. She cited a previous Illinois Federal case (United States v. Black) claiming that accessibility heightens the risk a jury will not be able to “function as it should, in secrecy and free of any outside influence.”

Morgan respectfully disagreed with the opinion in an interview with Courthouse News. He claims jurors can lie in various facets, and only transparency could expose a possible conflict or compelling interest.

“Bottom line is people will lie to get out of jury duty that much we know,” he said. “People will lie. People will lie to get onto jury. People will lie to avoid exposing their biases, [and] lie to avoid exposing their relationships.”

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