Virginia drops plan for anonymous juries

The Supreme Court of Virginia has withdrawn a controversial proposal that would have automatically withheld the identities of jurors in all criminal cases, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported.

Several open government organizations, including the Virginia Press Association and the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, opposed the rule. The Reporters Committee filed comments noting that courts have found that the First Amendment creates a presumption of access to juror identities, which can be overcome in cases where a judge believes that jurors are at risk.

In 2008 the General Assembly enacted a law that required courts to find “good cause” for secrecy before hiding the identities of jurors. But the proposed court rule, which was billed as an implementation of the 2008 Virginia law, required that all criminal jurors in Virginia be assigned a number and “at all times during the course of the trial … the court, counsel for the parties, and the jurors, shall refer to jurors by number and not by name.”

The blanket secrecy was an attempt, the proposal said, “to avoid any implication that this anonymous procedure is being undertaken in any specific case because of the dangerousness of that specific defendant.”

In a revised draft the court published in October, it withdrew the controversial proposal and replaced it with a revised proposed rule, which, like the law, requires a judge to find “good cause” for secrecy before withholding juror identities. The new proposal explains that the court “gave detailed consideration to the many comments and suggestions received on the initial draft rule, and focused on complying with the plain language of the statute.”

Comments on the revised proposal are due by April 15, 2010.

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