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5 Secrets for Trying Cases in SDNY

Laurie Kuslansky
By: Laurie Kuslansky

Jury Questionnaire, Trial Consultants, Jury Consulting, Trial Consulting, Juries, Jury Consultants, Voir Dire, Jury Selection, New York

by Laurie R. Kuslansky
Expert Jury Consultant

One of the most common venues for federal jury trials is the Southern District of New York. This district includes Manhattan as well as the Bronx and Westchester, Putnam, Rockland, Orange, Dutchess, and Sullivan counties. The court sits in the Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse and in the Daniel Patrick Moynihan U.S. Courthouse in downtown Manhattan, and in the Charles L. Brieant Federal Building and Courthouse in White Plains, in Westchester County.

The district includes urban areas (Manhattan, Bronx) as well as suburban and exurban areas (Westchester, Putnam, and Rockland counties) and basically small-town and rural areas (Orange, Dutchess and Sullivan counties). Clearly, a juror from Greenwich Village is often going to see things differently from a juror from New Rochelle. Here are some tips on trying cases in this district.

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1. Westchester/Putnam jurors are a different breed from the rest of the venire.

Jurors summoned to SDNY can be quite diverse, and sometimes, the pool is heavily weighted one way (e.g., doctors and lawyers), or the other (blue collar, poor minority).  Those coming from the suburbs are more likely to have higher socio-economic status, be better educated, more stable (homeowners, married), and better employed or stationed (think Stepford wives married to lawyers), whereas those from the Bronx are more likely to be the reverse.

In Manhattan, anything is possible and runs the gamut – from janitors to Wall Street traders. Depending on which side of the case you are on, the pool will likely sway for or against you, before voir dire even begins. Be aware of Westchester/Putnam folks who, as homeowners, tend to be financially conservative, whereas jurors from the Bronx are more inclined to throw the book at a perceived wrongdoer. In Manhattan, watch for what people say they do rather than what they aspire to be. For example, aspiring actors and other artists may well have a different job, such as the proverbial waiter/waitress or bartender.  Anyone whose job includes a “slash,” such as a writer/teacher, also signals the need for follow up, because either they need more than one job, don’t have a single full-time job (why?), or other reasons worth exploring.  Whether someone owns or rents their home is also worthwhile pursuing.  There’s a great difference in their perspectives and experience.  Someone can live in a penthouse or have roommates in the basement. 

One subtle way to aim for a better pool is to exercise whatever control you may have in the timing of the jury selection in trial.

2. Timing is everything: 

    • If you want accountants, avoid tax-season trials
    • If you don’t want teachers, avoid a summer trial
    • If you want psychologists or psychiatrists, avoid an August trial

3. You can ask more in voir dire than you may think.

Many SDNY judges accept at least proposed jury questions from counsel and, if the case is high profile, a written questionnaire. Many litigators assume – without asking the clerk – that they can have virtually no role in the voir dire

The only way to know is to ask.  Keep in mind that the proposed questions, other than those for cause, should be well-thought out, relevant to the issues and parties, and brief.  The more questions submitted, the more likely a judge will be to edit them down.  The problem is that your most cherished questions may end up on the cutting-room floor, so keep it lean and mean.  In addition, construct open-ended questions, or at least do so for follow-up questions.  For example, “Have you ever owned your own business?  If yes, please describe if it is still operating or, if not, what happened.”

4. If you want higher socio-economic status jurors, aim for jury selection as early in the week as possible and vice versa.

Toward the end of week is slim pickings as those deemed qualified have been put on juries and the pool is not replenished until the remains are picked over further.  Avoid August when those who can, go on vacation, including families, psychologists and other professionals. Those who can summer outside the city, in the Hamptons, Fire Island, or elsewhere.

5. “500 Pearl St.” is actually 200 Worth St.  Ask for the back entrance – the line is shorter to get through security

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