Question: When does a trial judge commit error in denying a for-cause challenge to a juror?
Answer: If the denial for-cause was illogical or arbitrary.
A trial court has discretion to grant or deny juror challenges for cause, and its decision should be sustained on appeal, unless it was illogical or arbitrary. Rule 17 provides that the court shall sustain a challenge for cause if the prospective juror… is biased or prejudiced for or against a party to the case. However, a prospective juror may be rehabilitated through questioning that elicits whether the juror could set aside personal biases, beliefs and prejudices and follow instructions as given. Because of the importance of a fair and impartial jury, it is the joint responsibility of both counsel and the trial court to undertake some rehabilitation effort when an issue arises regarding whether a juror is fit to serve.
Further, an erroneous denial of a “for-cause” motion to strike a juror is prejudicial when it requires a party to exhaust its peremptory challenges and accept an objectionable or incompetent juror. It is clear that the very fact that an objectionable juror serves is how a party is prejudiced. The courts have also made clear that the trial court retains great discretion in deciding whether a juror should be struck for cause. Because of the deference we give to our trial court judges to make decisions about jurors, it is a rare circumstance that an appellate court will reverse and grant a new trial.