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Hard Times Mean Whiter Juries

Hard economic times cause child-care, transportation and job problems for lower-income people. Those problems make it tougher for lower-income people to serve on juries. If lower-income people are less able to serve, that translates into juries that are not only higher income but whiter. Anne Reed points out how the nation's economic crisis could be making juries less diverse in a post at her blog Deliberations.

Reed picks up on a 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals case decided this week, Smith v. Berghuis. The decision overturned a Michigan murder conviction because the state court selected jurors in a way that disproportionately and systematically excluded blacks. Ironically, the court adopted the system out of benevolence, as Reed explains:

The selection practice in question wasn't designed to exclude black jurors. It was designed to help people. When prospective jurors in Kent County Circuit Court said that they had transportation problems, child care concerns, or the inability to take time away from work, they usually got to go home, no questions asked. If jurors gave awards to the nicest court, Kent County Circuit Court would get one.

The problem with this, as Reed points out, was that "concerns about child care, transportation, and missing work aren't equally distributed." As a matter of economics -- and as an expert witness testified -- blacks are more likely to have these concerns than whites. That led the 6th Circuit to this conclusion:

Here, the particular jury selection process employed by Kent County made social or economic factors relevant to whether an otherwise qualified prospective juror would be excused from service; and because such social or economic factors disproportionately impact African Americans in Kent County, such factors produced systematic exclusion.

The decision could not have been more timely, suggests Reed, who explains:

If you want to watch exactly how the economy affects people, go watch jury selection in any courtroom on any day. You'll see panic on jurors' faces as they ask the judge to let them go home, far more than you would have seen a few years ago. It isn't just a hardship on them, or even on the court. It's changing the very composition of juries, and thus the definition of the word.

For more about the 6th Circuit's ruling, see the blog Juries and this report from Associated Press

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on September 26, 2008 at 11:16 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

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