When it comes to family law matters in Texas, most people think that any and every issue is brought to the judge and the judge alone. However, certain issues can be placed in the hands of a jury. Unless you have prior experience in a jury trial, you may be unaware of what to expect should your case go that route. This week and next we’ll touch on jury trials. First looking at a broad overview of them, and second breaking down the psychology and small details that can effect the outcome.
Jury Trials in Family Law:
While the majority of family law cases are decided by judges, there are certain situations where it is strategically advantageous to request a jury trial. However, the jury is limited in what decisions they can make in family law cases. In cases regarding children, the Texas Family Code (§ 105.002 for those interested) states that a jury may decide conservatorship, which parent may designate the primary residence, and if there will be a geographic restriction for that primary residence. What they may not decide is a possession and access schedule, child support, or any other rights or duties of the conservators. In a divorce suit a jury can decide whether property is separate or community, and how much the property is worth. They do not get to decide how the property is divided in the divorce. These other issues are still in the hands of the judge
Initiating a Jury Trial:
Requesting a jury trial in a family law case is fairly easy. Simply file a written request and pay the required fees. Note that, there is a timeframe where this request must be made. The request must be made no later than fourteen days before the case is set for trial. What that means is that if you already have a trial date with just a judge, and you file a request for a jury twelve days before trial, you won’t receive one.
The first day of jury trial the jury selection process known as voir dire (Important note that was explained to me before I ever set foot in a jury trial: in Texas that is pronounced “vor di-ar” not “deer”). A pool of potential jurors will enter the courtroom and attorneys from both sides ask them various questions and gage their responses to determine their suitability for the case. Afterwards the judge will ask if there are any potential jurors that should be struck “for cause”. These are people who would present some kind of conflict with an unbiased jury. For example if one of the potential jurors was a party’s best friend, a family member of one of the attorneys, or clearly stated in their answers that they couldn’t be unbiased towards moms or dads primarily having their children they would be struck for cause. Next, each side gets to use six strikes to remove whatever jurors they want from the pool. The purpose of this is to ensure that an unbiased and fair jury is making the decision.
Once the jury is selected and any pretrial issues are taken care of, the actual trial begins. The judge provides instructions on the relevant laws, and the jury is tasked with applying those laws to the facts presented. The attorney for the petitioner presents their opening argument followed by the attorney for the respondent. After opening, examination begins. The petitioner presents their case in chief first by calling their first witness and questioning them on direct examination. Once this witness has been “passed”, the other side will then get the opportunity for cross examination. After that has finished the petitioner can then have a redirect examination. This process repeats until there are no questions left for that witness. Once all witnesses have been thoroughly examined by both sides, and all evidence has been presented to the jury, the attorneys will give closing arguments.
Deliberation and Verdict:
After both parties rest their case and close, the jury leaves to deliberate in private. In family law cases a unanimous verdict is not required. However, at least ten of the twelve jurors must all agree on the same verdict. This process can take anywhere from a few minutes to many hours. Once a verdict is reached, the jury informs the court, and the judge announces the decision.