Wisconsin Supreme Court rejects jury-anonymity proposal

Wednesday, November 18, 1998

The Wisconsin Supreme Court yesterday unanimously rejected a proposal to keep personal information about jurors private. If passed, the measure would have made the state the first in the nation to empanel anonymous juries.

Lawyers and news organizations praised the decision, saying it maintained the state's reputation as one of the most open court systems in the nation.

But representatives of district court administrators and clerks said they had hoped the state's highest court would have offered something to ease jurors' fears.

“When they come to us, we have a duty to protect their privacy rights,” said Taylor County Circuit Judge Gary Lee Carlson, who sits on the state courts committee that proposed the change.

Although judges have great authority in keeping jurors' names private in individual cases, the proposal in Wisconsin would have mandated that personal information about jurors be kept confidential in all trials. Such information would be kept from lawyers even during jury selection, thus barring them from questioning potential jurors about employment or educational backgrounds.

The state courts committee said it offered the proposal because jurors often leave the court system worried about public disclosure of their personal information. Carlson told the court that other states had taken steps to ensure juror privacy.

During a three-hour hearing, the justices heard mostly from news media representatives and lawyers who opposed the rule change. Some said the rule proposal would make Wisconsin the only state in the nation to use completely anonymous juries.

News organizations contend that adding another level of secrecy would undermine the courts' accountability. Lawyers oppose such a plan, saying they can't adequately select unbiased jurors without knowing something about their lives.

Jenny Boese, government relations coordinator for the Wisconsin Bar Association, said that bar members “didn't feel there was enough of a risk to the jurors to warrant the rule change. This would actually hinder a fair trial.”

Some said current practices already protect jurors adequately.

Michael Skwierawski, the chief judge for Milwaukee County, told the court that trial judges in Wisconsin have been quite effective in determining on a case-by-case basis when to empanel an anonymous jury. He noted that all 46 circuit court judges in Milwaukee oppose the proposal.

According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the justices discussed forming a committee to explore less-encompassing methods to maintain juror privacy. But they didn't vote on any proposal to do so.

State Supreme Court Justice Ann Walsh Bradley said she hoped for “more of a Band-Aid approach” such as having the courts stop gathering Social Security numbers, phone numbers and family information from potential jurors.