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Courts Try to Maximize Jury Diversity
The Constitution, federal law and a series of Supreme Court rulings
guarantee the right to impartial juries, selected at random from a fair
cross-section of the community. Increasingly, federal trial courts are
seeking to move beyond those legal imperatives and find new ways to
maximize jury diversity.
“Originally, an impartial jury only had to be comprised of men who owned
property. We’ve come a long way. But the system, which may never be
perfect, needs to reflect today’s reality,” said Judge Reginald Lindsay
in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts.
Lindsay led a committee of district court officials who, after a
year-long study, revised the court’s jury plan earlier this year in an
effort to get more racial and ethnic minorities on juries.
Why was such an effort needed, and why was it deemed to be important? The answers require a look at “today’s reality.”
As do all 94 federal trial courts, the District of Massachusetts has a
written jury plan to assure compliance with constitutional mandates and
the federal Jury Selection and Service Act, which for nearly 20 years
has prohibited the exclusion from federal jury service of any person “on
account of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, or economic
The district, however, is unique in using resident lists, the result of
an annual census taken in each city and town in Massachusetts, as its
source of jurors.
But a study ordered in 2005 by Judge Nancy Gertner (D. Mass.) found that
wealthier towns with few minority residents did a better job of keeping
accurate residency lists than more diverse communities. The result: a
higher percentage of jury summonses sent to minorities came back as
undeliverable or went unanswered.
Under the district’s revised jury plan, a jury summons returned as
undeliverable from any of the court’s three geographic divisions will
spur the court to send another summons to another resident in the same
zip code. Two other innovations: The list of potential jurors will be
submitted to a Postal Service check for address changes twice a year
instead of annually; and a brochure being developed to perhaps accompany
summonses will explain the importance of jury service.
“There is no perfect source of potential jurors: voter registration
lists, lists of actual voters, and annual resident lists all have proven
to have flaws,” the district’s jury plan committee concluded. “It is
likely that any new source . . . will also have flaws. The question is
what source gives us the closest approximation of the fair cross-section
ideal. Answering that question remains the committee’s principal work.”
Lindsay added: “The perception of fairness counts. A white jury may be
fair, but a non-white defendant likely will think ‘the jurors can’t be
fair because they don’t understand me.’”
The U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas monitored the
Massachusetts court’s efforts very closely, Chief Judge John Lungstrum
said, because “a disproportionate number of bad addresses or people not
responding had become a concern.”
“We weren’t comfortable with the representative nature of the resulting
jury pools, especially regarding racial and ethnic minorities,”
The district’s amended jury plan, which took effect June 1, also calls
for a “supplemental draw” in which a summons returned as undeliverable
will spark the sending out of a new summons to someone else in the same
In the Fresno division of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern
District of California, Judge Oliver Wanger reports that judges have
focused for years on jury composition. “We’ve looked out at the panels
and, candidly, we and the litigants before us did not see people who
look like them. There were very few African-Americans. This is, in part,
a function of the unique demographics of our division.”
Under a pilot program approved by the Judicial Council of the U.S. Court
of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, federal juries in Fresno later this
year will be drawn not only from voter registration lists but also from
Department of Motor Vehicle records.
“We hope that combination will result in more diverse jury panels,” Wanger said.