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High Court Upholds Ruling on Disclosing Jury Questionnaires

October 16, 1991|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court let stand a ruling on a San Diego case that forces California courts generally to make public all questionnaires completed by potential jurors in criminal cases.

The court, without comment Tuesday, rejected arguments by San Diego County officials aimed at keeping the information confidential to protect jurors' privacy.

The dispute arose in the 1990 trial in San Diego of Roberta Pearce, charged with murdering her husband.

About 300 potential jurors were told to fill out questionnaires asking such questions as whether they or members of their families had been victims of child molestation or had ever been dependent on drugs.

During jury selection in Mrs. Pearce's trial, a reporter for the San Diego Union asked for access to the completed questionnaires. The county trial judge refused.

Lawyers for the Copley Press, which publishes the Union, then filed a formal motion seeking release of the questionnaires.

After hearing arguments on the motion, the trial judge again denied release.

On March 12, 1990, Mrs. Pearce was convicted. Two days later, The Copley Press appealed the trial judge's ruling to a state appeals court.

The appeals court last February ruled that, in future cases, the jury questionnaire must be made public. But it said that the potential jurors who fill out the questionnaires may ask the presiding judge for permission to answer some sensitive questions orally in a meeting with the judge and lawyers for both sides.

Relying heavily on the Supreme Court's 1984 decision that said the public has a right of access during jury selection in criminal trials, the state appeal court said free-speech considerations generally outweigh jurors' privacy rights.

The California Supreme Court refused to review the appeal court's ruling last May.

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