Simply stated, it’s jury selection. Or, at least, that’s what it usually means.
Most Common Usage: Ordinarily, the term “voir dire” refers to the process of selecting a jury from a panel of prospective jurors (sometimes referred to as veniremen). In this context, the purpose of voir dire is to ask jurors questions, which they are sworn to answer truthfully, for the purpose of selecting a fair and impartial jury to hear a case.
How the voir dire process is conducted varies from court to court. Oftentimes, the judge conducts most of the voir dire, reserving a few minutes at the end for the attorneys to ask follow-up questions. In other courts, the judge may ask a few preliminary questions, then turn the proceedings over to the attorneys to conduct a more comprehensive voir dire examination.
Other Usage: Voir dire can also be used to describe the process of questioning a witness in advance for the purpose of determining whether the witness will be permitted to give testimony on a particular matter. When an attorney is not certain whether certain testimony of a witness will objectionable under the rules, the attorney may ask the judge to be permitted to “take the witness on voir dire.” If the judge permits this, then the attorney may ask preliminary questions aimed at ascertaining the quality, admissibility or competency of the evidence that the witness will offer. This type of voir dire is generally followed up by an objection to the proposed evidence, or a statement that the attorney has no objection.
Anyone who has seen My Cousin Vinny (the quintessential how-(not)-to legal comedy) will recall that both types of voir dire occur in this movie. At the outset of the trial, the prosecutor and Vinny voir dire prospective jurors in order to select the jury for the case. Later during trial, the prosecutor voir dires Vinny’s fiancé to determine whether she should be allowed to give expert opinion testimony on automotive matters.
Pronunciation: Voir dire is a French term, and if pronounced correctly, would sound something like vwahr deer (rhymes with “choir dear”), but in Texas it is more commonly pronounced vore dire (rhymes with “for hire”).
Derivation: For those who speak modern French, it is a seemingly nonsensical term which would literally translate as “to see–to say” (voir, meaning “to see”; dire, meaning “to say”). On second glance, however, this is the essence of the voir dire process from an attorney’s perspective – it is an opportunity to see prospective jurors and to hear what they have to say prior to making a decision about who will actually serve on the jury in a particular case. (Or, with regard to a witness, it is an opportunity to see the witness and hear what the witness has to say prior to allowing the witness to testify.)
However, most believe that term comes from Old French, derived from the Latin phrase verum dicere, meaning “to speak the truth.” In that case, this would also aptly describe the voir dire process, because the voir dire examination is the one and only opportunity for the judge and attorneys to hear the jurors speak truthfully about their beliefs and opinions prior to making a decision about who will serve as a juror in the case. (This would also apply to voir dire regarding a witness, who would testify under oath regarding the source or quality of their testimony prior to providing the actual testimony in open court.)
— Bonnie Sudderth, Judge of the 352nd District Court of Tarrant County, Texas