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Will The Economic Downturn Make Juries Less Diverse?

A new case reminds us that in jury selection, economics and race are often the same thing.

As Thaddeus Hoffmeister reported at Juries this morning, the Sixth Circuit yesterday decided Smith v. Berguis, overturning a Michigan state court murder conviction because the court selected juries in a way that disproportionately and systematically excluded African-Americans.

Just trying to help

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 is that concerns about child care, transportation, and missing work aren't equally distributed. An expert witness in Smith explained the stark, familiar numbers:

• "64 percent of African American households with children were headed by single parents, while only 19 percent of white families were headed by single parents"

• "27 percent of whites are renters, while 59 percent of African Americans are renters"

• "6.7 percent of whites live below the poverty line, while 31.5 percent of African Americans in Kent County live below the poverty line"

What's worse, they were leftovers

When the case got to the Sixth Circuit on habeas corpus, the court found the resulting jury insufficient:

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 problem was made worse because the Kent County Circuit Court jury pool was composed of those jurors left over after juries were chosen for the local district court from Grand Rapids, the only city in the county with a significant African-American population.

Funny you should mention economic factors

Smith's case has been inching through the state and federal courts for sixteen years. But the release of the opinion yesterday, the same day the president told us that "major sectors of America's financial system are at risk of shutting down," had a jarring timeliness.

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.

Is it important? Sam Sommers's research on decisionmaking by diverse groups says it is. And there are uglier reminders. Today the Smith v. Barguis decision was reported on a racist web site whose tag line is "White Pride World Wide." "Black Killer Wins New Trial With Black Jury," the headline said.

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