Interest groups are gearing up for the 2006 ballot, racing to collect the signatures needed for their proposals to reach the public for a vote. With the petition drive to place the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative on the ballot, there has been an influx of media attention focused on race-based initiatives. As Michigan legislators and residents debate the role race plays in today’s society, the Ypsilanti-based group People of Diversity United for Equality has proposed an initiative to allow defendants facing a criminal trial to request half their jury be of their own race. While the group’s proposal is understandably motivated by the pervasive discrimination in the criminal justice system, its shift away from traditional conceptions of due process in trial law threatens to undermine a key tenet of our judicial system and only risks perpetuating future injustice.
It is not uncommon for prosecutors to use race strategically when creating a jury, often to the detriment of black defendants. It is unfortunate that the current system allows few ways for the accused, or their lawyers, to combat the problem. Backers of the proposal argue that all- or nearly all-white juries are not representative of minority communities and cannot be considered a true jury of peers when evaluating minority defendants.
But by launching this campaign, the group is asserting that race is the most important factor in determining who a defendant’s peers are. Certainly, race is a vital aspect of identity, but numerous other factors, such as regional location, also contribute to identity. By allowing defendants to regionally exchange jurors, the proposal would, in effect, value a jury of racial peers over one representative of the jurisdiction where a trial occurs.
The troubles with modifying the concept of a peer jury, however, do not stop with the de-emphasis of regional identity that PDUE’s proposal entails. Many people would assert that factors such as their political or religious beliefs play a far greater role in defining their peer group than either race or geographical location. If a peer jury is to contain a majority of citizens who match the defendant’s personal identity, it is difficult to see why a defendant should not have a jury of political or religious peers. There would be an endless list of ways to abuse the law.
The Bill of Rights guarantees that every citizen is granted the right to trial by a jury of peers. Certainly, this means that juries must be as diverse as the communities they represent, and those involved in the judicial process must ensure that potential jurors are never eliminated because of their race. By engineering juries to be representative of a defendant’s personal identity rather than of the community at large, however, PDUE’s proposal goes beyond ensuring diversity. Such a redefinition of the concept of a peer jury would encourage the future inclusion of other extraneous criteria in jury selection, and ultimately risk the fairness of trial by jury.