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[Old French, To speak the truth.] The preliminary examination of prospective jurors to determine their qualifications and suitability to serve on a jury, in order to ensure the selection of fair and impartial jury.
Voir dire consists of oral questions asked of prospective jurors by the judge, the parties, or the attorneys, or some combination thereof. This oral questioning, often supplemented by a prior written questionnaire, is used to determine whether a potential juror is biased, knows any of the parties, counsel, or witnesses, or should otherwise be excluded from jury duty. Voir dire is a tool used to achieve the constitutional right to an impartial jury, but it is not a constitutional right in itself.
Typically, a number of prospective jurors are called to the jury box, given an oath, and then questioned as a group by counsel or the court. Local federal rules generally provide for questioning by the judge. Individual or sequestered voir dire is used in rare cases where extensive publicity may potentially damage a defendant's case; some jurisdictions mandate it in death penalty cases. A prospective juror must answer questions fully and truthfully but cannot be faulted for failing to disclose information that was not sought.
The purpose of voir dire is not to educate jurors but to enable the parties to select an impartial panel. Therefore, voir dire questions should test the capacity and competency of the jurors without intentionally or unintentionally planting prejudicial matter in their minds. Trial judges have wide latitude in setting the parameters of questioning, including the abilities to determine the materiality and propriety of the questions and to set the time allowed for voir dire.
A party may move for dismissal for cause to remove any potential juror shown to be connected to or biased in the case. A court may sustain counsel's request to strike a juror for cause, in which case the juror steps aside and another is called. Or a judge may overrule a challenge for cause if a suitable reason has not been sufficiently established. Challenges for cause are not limited in number.
Each side also exercises peremptory challenges to further shape the composition of the jury. Peremptory challenges are used to dismiss a prospective juror without the need to provide a reason for dismissal. Statutes or court rules typically set the number of peremptory challenges afforded to a party.
Voir dire also describes a court's preliminary examination of a prospective witness whose competency or qualifications have been challenged.