When I have an African-American defendant in a criminal trial, I like to ask potential jurors the following question: What do you think of race relations in the United States — are they good; bad; is there room for improvement?
Almost everyone answers that there is room for improvement. What would you improve if you could do so, I then ask. Answers vary.
Don’t bother asking the Judicial Branch in Connecticut. Jury administrators — the folks responsible for assuring that a fair cross-section of the community reports for jury duty — just don’t care about race. By wearing blinders, and refusing even to tabulate data about the race of potential jurors, these officials act as if everything is just fine and dandy along the color line.
I picked a jury in a murder case not long ago in Eastern Connecticut. In six days of jury selection, we interviewed more than 120 folks. We did not see a single African-American male, and we saw only a few black women. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, 6.5 percent of the county is African-American.
Something is wrong with this picture. Ask lawyers and judges statewide, and many will tell you people of color are under-represented on juries statewide.
Jurors are drawn from four pools; the secretary of the state submits a list of registered voters; the Department of Motor Vehicles gives a list of those applying for driver’s licenses or state identification cards; the Labor Department provides the names of those filing unemployment compensation claims; and, the Department of Revenue Services tenders the names of those filing Connecticut income tax forms.
But if you ask officials from any of these departments about the racial makeup of the lists they submit to the Judicial Branch for potential jury service, you’re in for a disappointment. They have no idea. They don’t keep this data, or so representatives of each department said when I subpoenaed them to a courtroom looking for something to tell my client about why not a single black man was available for questioning on his jury.
Perhaps an answer would be found from the Attorney General’s Office, I thought. After all, that office is responsible for issuing civil summons to people who do not show up to court for jury duty. Surprise, surprise — since 2009, not a single solitary soul in Connecticut has been prosecuted for ignoring a jury summons. (About one in 30 people simply ignore the order to come to court.)
On the questionnaire potential jurors are given, they are asked to designate their race or ethnic background to help assure that jurors are selected in a nondiscriminatory manner. But the very next sentence tells them giving the information is not necessary. Indeed, the section ends by telling jurors they needn’t answer the question at all, if doing so is offensive. The form is pure gibberish, making a mockery of the commitment to ensuring that no group is discriminated against.
Can it really be that no one in the state of Connecticut keeps statistics on the race of jurors who respond to the call for jury duty?
There is a broad, and uneasy, silent consensus among criminal defense lawyers and judges presiding over the criminal courts that juries are too often too white. We try to keep it secret by refusing to talk about it. When I’ve complained about the lack of black faces in jury panels, I’ve actually had prosecutors stand up, with a straight face, and tell the judge they could not tell the race of panel members, this after having looked potential jurors in the eye. This sort of intellectual dishonesty makes a mockery of the deep wounds caused by this nation’s racial — and racist — legacy. How many prosecutors would be as blind if a black family took up residence next door in suburbia?
If white defendants routinely walked into courtrooms to face all-black juries, I’ve a hunch that serious questions would be raised about how jurors are selected. But we seem to accept the racial disparity when it cuts against a person of color. That’s Jim Crow’s legacy.
In employment law, a set of institutional practices that routinely produces results favoring the inclusion of one group at the expense of another group might be regarded as a sign of discrimination. A disparate impact on one group, we say, raises serious questions. Young black men are kept from jury service in Connecticut. It is disparate.
What accounts for this?
Don’t suggest that it is because so many of them have felony convictions, and are therefore ineligible to serve. No effort is made to screen folks with felony convictions before potential jurors arrive at the courthouse. The net we cast for jury service is simply coming up empty far too often when it comes to race. No one seems to care why.
Mounting a legal challenge to whether a defendant has been deprived a jury representing a fair cross-section of the community, a right we all enjoy under the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, is all but impossible. Since the state refuses to keep statistics, any challenge must resort to guesswork. The few cases on point regarding challenges to the array of those called for service rely on sophisticated statistical tests that cannot be performed when there is no way of telling the race of those called to jury duty.
So we end up with largely, and often exclusively, white juries deciding the fate of young black men. We don’t raise questions. We don’t even make it possible to ask meaningful questions. The state puts on blinders when it comes time to give and tell us how many people of color were summoned to jury duty.
Is it possible that we don’t know the answer because we don’t want to know the truth?
Ideally, justice is color blind. I get that. But what am I to tell the next young black man who asks where his peers are when a panel of potential jurors enters the room — we’re all equal in the eyes of the law? That is a mere truism that denies the reality that race, like class, often defines and limits a person’s life chances.
That no one in the Judicial Branch can answer the simplest of questions about the racial composition of juries in Connecticut is a disgrace. When will we learn to have candid and courageous discussions about race?
Reprinted courtesy of the Journal Register company.