Overcoming the disparities in jury selection

Federal Way Municipal Court was part of a survey in 2017 that revealed a low rate for people of color appearing for jury service both in Federal Way and across Washington state. Jury summons are random, and the court does not have racial information for those we summon, so there is no evidence that any court is intending this disparate result. However, our court is intent on helping our community address the issue head-on.

The first thing the court did was form a Jury Diversity Committee. The court then collaborated with the city of Federal Way Diversity Commission. The consensus of the newly formed committee is that we must tackle this issue in partnership with the people of Federal Way.

We start by framing the historical perspective that leads us to where we are today.

“12 Angry Men” was a 1957 movie that highlighted the dynamics of jury deliberation. Spoiler alert: The jury wanted to convict the defendant of murder with one lone hold-out that ultimately convinced the other 11 jurors that the defendant did not commit the murder.

However, we can learn something else from the movie 61 years after it was made. The lesson learned is found in the title and in the opening scene. As the camera pans the jurors seated in a jury box it is evident that the 12 jurors are all white men.

The movie is somewhat a work of fiction (and perhaps a reflection of Hollywood’s attitudes toward race at the time too) because people of color could be jurors so long as they were registered to vote. But real life kept many from serving on juries because many people could not afford poll taxes and without proper education could not pass literacy tests that served as prerequisites to voter registration. Hence, the reality of predominantly white juries.

It was not until the passage of the 24th Amendment in 1964 that poll taxes were prohibited in federal elections. It was not until 1966 that the Supreme Court found poll taxes unconstitutional for state elections. The U.S. Supreme Court did not decide the Batson case until 1986. Batson is the case that prohibited the practice of using preemptory challenges to exclude people of color from jury service.

Washington state was ahead of the time when we repealed our poll tax in 1922 with Initiative 40. The ability to serve on a jury was also extended beyond registered voters to include licensed drivers in 1993.

This commentary is about racial disparities in jury service, but it is worth noting that women only had the right to serve on juries in our state as of 1911. The last state to remove barriers for women jurors was Mississippi, believe it or not, in 1968.

However, we are still living with the remnants of past exclusions. In fact, the Washington Supreme Court just passed a rule this year that further restricts lawyers’ challenges to jurors based on race. There are also continued efforts to improve the system by amendments to the statutes that regulate jury service. We also need to address issues of trust in our justice system that may explain low turnout.

The court is restricted on what it can do with the information gathered in the survey because state law requires a random process where people are selected from the pool of registered voters and licensed drivers that live in Federal Way. The court has no way of knowing the race of a potential juror, and it would be illegal for the court to cherry pick jurors from the community to meet quotas. So, what can we do?

One might be tempted throw up their hands and suggest that this is just another example of history that is too heavy to overcome, but all journeys start with one step forward, mindful that each step thereafter is only possible with continued resolve and commitment to a higher plane of existence for each of us.

The last thing we should do is resort to anger about the history noted above. We create a self-fulfilling prophecy if we avoid jury service based on past transgressions. We need to use that history as fuel to inspire a higher level of participation in jury service for all, especially for people of color.

We will do our best in the next two columns we submit to inspire us all to meet the call for jury service regardless of race, gender, economic status or any other distinctions between us that serve as a barrier to jury service.

Members of the Federal Way Jury Diversity Committee are: Judge Dave Larson, Federal Way Municipal Court; Nichelle Curtis-McQueen, Federal Way Diversity Commission; William Yi, Federal Way Diversity Commission; Pastor Joe Bowman, Jr., Integrity Life Church; Lawrence Garrett, Advancing Leadership; Sandra Englund, Korean American Community Member.