A Response to Michael Pressman’s “The Challenge of Achieving a Representative Cross-Section of the Community for Jury Trials during the Pandemic”

By Oscar Bobrow and Lois Heaney

We take issue with Research Fellow Michael Pressman’s analysis in the Civil Jury Project’s July newsletter that a challenge to under-representation based on race or sex stemming from the impact of post-COVID jury policies would fail because “courts have no control over the virus” and thus, such policies “would not be systematic exclusion.”

The theory is wrong and should fail.  To the contrary, it is fully within courts’ control to devise responses to the coronavirus that do not result in exacerbating underrepresentation of already underrepresented groups.

Recent polls indicate that in the wake of the pandemic, young black and Hispanic women and older white women were among the most hesitant to appear in court in response to a summons while younger white politically conservative males were more likely to appear in court. [1]

Experts have been discussing juror-friendly policies courts might implement as they re-open and summon jurors. One recommendation is increased flexibility in granting postponements and excusals. [2]   While such policies may appear reasonable in response to the COVID-19 crisis, they will increase unrepresentativeness in jury pools. Even in the absence of a pandemic, Black jurors are more likely than white jurors to request and receive temporary excusals from jury service. [3]   The risk of increasing under-representation must be addressed as courts re-open and plan to conduct jury trials.

It is widely known that communities of color have suffered more severe impacts from COVID-19 than have white communities. [4]  Accordingly, flexible excuse and postponement policies will surely have a disparate impact on summoned jurors from communities of color. The experts who recommend increased flexibility in excusal and postponement policies acknowledge that the net effect of such policies will be that “jury pools will be whiter, less diverse and younger.”

While the courts did not cause the pandemic, courts have the power to assure representativeness in jury pools, pandemic or not. States must protect the liberty of citizens. The right to a trial by a jury of one’s peers in our courts is one of the most important means of doing so. Moreover, many remedies are available to courts through executive, judicial or administrative action to avoid the unintended discriminatory impact of court policies.

First, courts must recognize the role of historic systemic racism, often implemented through government policies, in the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on African American and Latinx communities. These include:

  • lower access to health care, increasing the likelihood of high-risk underlying conditions;
  • higher numbers working in “essential” jobs, increasing exposure to the virus; and,
  • higher rates of arrest and imprisonment, again increasing possibility of exposure.

Even in the absence of a pandemic, African-American jurors who appear for service are more likely than whites to be excused. Temporary excusals are granted due to issues such as loss of income, lack of transportation or childcare, or underlying medical conditions. An increasingly flexible approach to excusals and postponements will certainly have a disparate impact on communities already excused in greater numbers. [5]  

In the midst of the pandemic, courts can and should implement policies that help assure that each litigant gets a fair trial from a fair cross-section of the community. One obvious remedy is over-summoning from census tracts or zip codes with higher African American, Latinx and low-income populations. This approach to reducing the impact of higher undeliverable and non-response rates can equally help to minimize the discriminatory impact of higher excusal and postponement rates.  In many jurisdictions, such stratified random sampling could be implemented through administrative order or policy changes.

Another approach to protecting fair trial rights in the face of a decrease in fair representation is for judges to allocate additional peremptory challenges to defendants in criminal cases faced with increasingly unrepresentative jury panels. Similarly, a time of crisis presents an opportunity to carefully evaluate and implement systemic changes that enhance representativeness including broadening source lists (to include, for example, tax files, unemployment records, and welfare recipients) and increasing juror pay.

Proposed Remedies

We suggest that there are a number practical and achievable steps that can be taken now to increase jury representativeness.

1. Juror summons include a statement that the court seeks to a have a racially and economically diverse pool of jurors and an introduction that includes steps being taken by the court to ensure jurors’ safety through social distancing and providing masks.

2. Expand the source lists: reliance on voter registration and motor vehicle/state identification card lists has failed to provide representative jury pools and is not race neutral. Expand the source lists to include state taxpayer rolls, named person on utility bills, and persons who receive public assistance or unemployment benefits.

3.     Require data collection by jury commissioners and publication of the demographic characteristics of the jury pool including the recognized cognizable groups – race, ethnicity and gender.

4.      Make the criteria for excusal explicit and the hardship process transparent providing counsel and the public with data as to the impact of hardship excusals on those cognizable groups.

5.     Send second jury notices to non-responders– the National Center for State Courts confirms that second and third summons increase the jury show rate including reiteration of the efforts being made to socially distance and make the court facility safe.

6.     Use stratified or cluster sampling – it is well known that communities with higher percentages of low-income households and people of color have higher rates of non-deliverables and non-responses. A number of factors contribute to this including that renters tend to be disproportionately people of color and younger people who move more often than homeowners resulting in higher rates of non-deliverable jury notices; the distance or cost involved in traveling to the courthouse; and the diminishing number of employers who pay employees while performing their jury service obligation. Some districts use zip code replacement for non-deliverables (The District of Massachusetts, Eastern District of Pennsylvania and District of Kansas.) More effective is a scheme for stratified sampling – also referred to as cluster sampling by which additional names are drawn from specific zip codes or sub-jurisdictions within the county which have historic low response rates and larger numbers of residents who are people of color. (see Nancy J. King and G. Thomas Munsterman, Stratified Juror Selection: Cross-Section by Design, 79 Judicature. 273 (1996) Available at: https://scholarship.law.vanderbilt.edu/faculty-publications/777)

7.     Restore civil rights including the duty to perform jury service to persons who have completed their felony sentences.

8.     Increase the public’s ability to serve on juries by more efficient use of court time by conducting trial on a schedule of 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. with two brief breaks, permitting jurors an opportunity to work part time and maintain some income.

9.     Increase pay for jury service so that jury service is not the exclusive province of those who can afford to serve. The Federal Courts pay $50/day while some state courts still pay as little as $5/day, including California which pays $15/day. (See Hon. Gregory E. Mize (ret.), Paula Hannaford-Agor, J.D. & Nicole L. Waters, Ph.D. April 2007, THE STATE-OF-THE-STATES SURVEY OF JURY IMPROVEMENT EFFORTS: A COMPENDIUM REPORT)

[1]  The National Center for State Courts commissioned a survey of 1,000 potential jurors conducted in mid-June 2020 ( https://www.ncsc.org/newsroom/at-the-center/2020/national-poll-public-warming-to-idea-of-remote-court-appearances ). The survey company reported that African Americans are “the least likely to report to the courthouse for jury duty because of health or safety reasons.” More than 80% of younger, more conservative, non-college educated white men said they would report for jury service if summoned; while only 45% – 60% of African American women, younger Hispanic women and older white women said they would report ( https://www.ncsc.org/__data/assets/pdf_file/0006/41001/NCSC-Juries-Post-Pandemic-World-Survey-Analysis.pdf). Similarly, a National Jury Project commissioned survey of over 400 jury eligible respondents in seven California counties in June 2020 found a majority unwilling to serve this year fearing exposure to COVID-19, with young people, African American women and Latinx men over 30 particularly hard hit by income loss stemming from the pandemic. National Jury Project survey results are available from njp-west@njp.com or contacting Lheaney@njp.com.

[2] Paula Hannaford-Agor, Re-establishing Jury Pools in the COVID-19 Era, National Center for State Courts webinar (June 4, 2020), https://vimeo.com/426265829

[3] A 2011 study conducted for the Chief Administrative Judge of the NYS Unified Court System found that among those who appeared for jury service, 11% of white jurors received temporary excusals, while 20% of Black jurors were excused. The study is available at  https://mcba.org/UserFiles/files/Jury%20Representativeness%20Study%2008-25-2011.pdf