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It’s typical for a jury to submit questions to a judge during deliberations to clarify a point of law or to ask to rehear some testimony. But it’s far from the norm for jurors to get a chance to pose questions to witnesses during trial. Such was the case during a recent sex discrimination trial in Michigan, in which U.S. District Court Judge George Steeh had the idea to allow the queries. Inquiring jurors wrote down their questions and submitted them to the judge, who handed them to the attorneys to work into their questioning. Plaintiff’s attorney Deborah L. Gordon of Royal Oak, Mich., said that although it was helpful to know what the jury was thinking, “it was a little nerve-wracking.” When the judge would hand over the questions on little yellow slips of paper, Gordon said that she thought, “Oh my God, now what?” For Gordon, it was especially useful — though wrenching — during the testimony of her client, Michigan high school basketball coach Geraldine Fuhr, who alleged that she was refused the job of boys’ varsity coach because she’s female. Some of the questions had an edge and worried the plaintiff’s lawyer, who was “extremely nervous” because the jury was all-female. One query asked what message the plaintiff was sending to the players in her current job of girls’ varsity coach if she thought being the boys’ varsity coach was a better position. A ‘NEW DYNAMIC’ Gordon said she handled at least 15 questions, noting that the jury directed them at particular witnesses. Having jurors as active trial participants “creates a whole new dynamic,” said Gordon. Normally a jury is a silent audience, and attorneys can only guess whether they are grasping the case. For attorneys who might wish for feedback from jurors during trials, “be careful what you wish for,” she said. Although the panel ultimately awarded the plaintiff $455,000, Gordon said that an all-female jury is not necessarily a good thing in a gender discrimination case with a female plaintiff. The panel could have gone out of its way not to appear sympathetic to the plaintiff because of her gender, Gordon said. The jury was “very conscious” of being all-female, said Gordon, who talked to some of the panel members after the trial. “Women can be very tough on other women,” she said. They might say they had faced discrimination and handled it without lawsuits, she said, and say about the plaintiff that “I don’t know what the fuss is about.” By closing arguments, Gordon said she was feeling more confident. “We had very compelling facts,” she said. The plaintiff had 28 seasons of basketball coaching experience; the winning candidate had two. Moreover, the plaintiff’s immediate boss, the school’s athletic director and big supporter of the plaintiff, was disinvited to a selection committee meeting called by the superintendent of schools. The athletic director testified that never before had his choice for coach been overridden. The plaintiff has filed a motion to be awarded the boys’ varsity job as equitable relief and intends to seek attorney fees, a “substantial” six-figure amount, said Gordon. Fuhr v. Hazel Park School District, No. 9976360 (E. D. Mich.). Defense attorney Timothy J. Mullins, a partner at Detroit’s Cox, Hodgman & Giarmarco, didn’t return calls seeking comment.

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