Voir dire is actually an old French phrase. Roughly translated, it means “to speak the truth.” It is used to describe the process of questioning potential jurors to see if they are harboring any bias, prejudice or interest that would disqualify them from serving.
In most states, the judge decides how the voir dire questions will be asked. For example, the judge may have the attorneys submit questions in writing and then the judge will ask the questions. Other judges let the attorneys themselves ask the questions. Either way the jurors are under oath and must answer the questions fully and truthfully.
The point of the voir dire process is to test the jurors to see if they can be fair and impartial. Campaigns by the insurance industry have convinced some people that lawsuits are largely frivolous, and that lawsuit abuse is responsible for rising insurance premiums. Obviously, it is important to identify jurors who cannot decide the case fairly because of preconceived ideas like these. It’s also important to learn if jurors have ties to the insurance industry (through their work experience, business dealings, etc.) that would prevent them from being fair to accident victims.
Voir dire gives attorneys the opportunity to explore these potential sources of bias. If a potential juror’s answers suggest that they can’t be fair, the attorney can ask to have that juror stricken. Attorneys also have the right to strike a certain number of jurors without having to give any reason for striking them. Ideally, this process insures that the jurors who actually hear the case are fair, honest and impartial. It’s one of the ways that our Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial is fully protected.