It would be as optimistic as it would be simple-minded to believe that race no longer affects our social interactions. It would be even more naA_ve to believe that race does not cross the minds of jurors as they deliberate the fates of the accused. Prejudice has no place in courtrooms, yet state courts still insist on debating whether judges have a right to promote the diversity of a jury to heed the 5th Amendment guarantees of due process and a fair trial. Perennially disturbing statistics like the percentage of blacks convicted and incarcerated reveal the ongoing discrimination in our legal system. Allowing a judge to balance minority representation on a jury cannot fully protect against this deeply imbedded racism, but it can help. Understanding this, the state Supreme Court should uphold a judge’s right to make his courtroom as receptive to a fair and impartial trial as possible.
The court is considering a ban on jury affirmative action after a Wayne County judge attempted to stack jury panels with residents from places like Detroit, Inkster and River Rouge – cities that traditionally have large proportions of black residents.
Having a diverse jury, especially when the defendant is a minority, is a critical safeguard against an unfair trial. While society has taken giant strides since the ’60s – both in the pursuit of equality under the law and attempts to foster social tolerance between races – trying a black defendant in front of an all-white jury still holds a high risk of partiality.
The Daily agrees with the State Bar of Michigan, the Michigan Judges Association and the state Department of Civil Rights in their condemnation of any proposal to ban a judge’s authority to balance a jury based on race. As it is, minorities are already handicapped in the courtroom. Many are assigned overworked and underpaid public defense attorneys. Some, especially those brought in on drug charges, face excessive sentences – largely the product of inherently biased drug statutes.
Studies have shown that there are five times more white male drug users than black male drug users, though for some reason, black males make up 58 percent of the population in drug correctional facilities. Prison statistics from 1999 show that though blacks made up 13 percent of the national population, they comprised 30 percent of all arrests. Also, as further indication of the disparity between races, blacks made up 49 percent of the population in prisons.
The state Supreme Court must recognize that by barring judges from manipulating jury selection, they expose a class of already vulnerable defendants to more discrimination. However troubling it may be to recognize the need for such intervention, the need is there. While racial minorities may have won equality under law, they are far from equal in the eyes of many of their peers. Any reasonable system of jury selection will reflect an understanding of this reality and have built-in mechanisms to address it.