LANSING (AP) — Parties in a criminal or civil trial could be guaranteed that members of their racial group make up half the jury under a measure an organization wants to put before state lawmakers or voters.

Ypsilanti-based People of Diversity United for Equality received the go-ahead yesterday to start collecting signatures for proposed legislation that supporters say would protect people from racially biased jury trials. The Board of State Canvassers approved the form of the petitions to be circulated.

The measure, called the “Casey 50/50 Jury Act,” would let plaintiffs or defendants ask that half of those in the jury box have an identical or similar racial appearance to their own. If enough minority jurors weren’t available in some parts of Michigan, jurors could be exchanged from other parts of the state.

The state would provide transportation, lodging and food for jurors who were required to travel outside their home jurisdiction.

The group must collect 254,206 valid signatures within a 180-day period to initiate the legislation, which would first go the Legislature. The Legislature then would have 40 session days to adopt or reject the proposal.

If rejected by the Legislature, which appears likely, the proposal would head to voters in November 2006.

“Certain races are being stricken off juries,” said Roderick Casey, leader of the group backing the initiative. “This is something we feel would prevent some unscrupulous people from using racially biased tactics to win cases.”

At least one key lawmaker, however, said he has deep concerns with the proposal.

Republican Rep. William Van Regenmorter of Jenison, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said it would be extremely difficult and costly to transport jurors around the state — and decide who falls under various racial groups.

“This indicts all jury-able persons,” he said. “It implies that jurors would make decisions not on the facts, but on race. I don’t believe that’s been the case.”

Casey, a 47-year-old retired janitor who is black, said he proposed the measure partly because of his own experience in the justice system. He said he was charged with assault and battery after a confrontation with hospital employees. The jury, Casey said, included just one black and mostly whites.

“How’s that a jury of my peers?” he said.

Casey’s group has until May 2006 to turn in the signatures.

In the meantime, many in the legal community will be watching tomorrow as the Michigan Supreme Court considers a related issue. The court will hear appeals from two black men jointly convicted of murder in Wayne County. The prosecutor used peremptory challenges to exclude some blacks from the jury.

Defense attorneys objected, claiming the jurors were eliminated solely on the basis of race.

The court will consider whether the constitutional rights of Gregory Rice and Jerome Knight were violated, regardless of whether other blacks sat on the jury.

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