Sunday, November 9, 2014

Jury Duty: Oppression in our Courts

Last week I was summoned for jury duty at Wiley W. Manuel courthouse in Oakland. Over a grueling 4-day course of jury selection, I witnessed the following signs of institutional oppression.

  • Only 3-5 of the approximately 100 jurors who initially showed up were black.
  • Most of the jurors in the waiting room were working and dressed in business attire, some on laptops, suggesting they were gainfully employed professionals enjoying middle class or higher incomes.
  • As the charges in the case pertained to domestic violence, sexual battery, and police testimony, most jurors with direct experience with victims and perps and with abusive police were excused. Many of these were women who more commonly access the confidence of victims. To be unaware of friends and acquaintances who have been victims and perps is a privilege of ignorance.
  • All but two of the approximately 60 jurors examined held at least a bachelor's degree. The two who finished high school (but were gainfully employed) were excused.
  • None of the selected jurors were black. The defendant was an African Muslim immigrant.
  • During a brief recess near the conclusion of the selection process, a small white woman struck up a conversation with me in complaining that, if selected, it would waste her vacation pay. Another juror and I mentioned unrepresentative demographics of the jurors who had been examined so far. The woman remarked, "At least the jury will be smart!" Not having been examined yet, I must conclude she assumed I was college-educated based on my appearance. (She was subsequently excused.)
In order to live in a large group of people, we agree to curtail certain individual freedoms to empower a governing body to maintain an appropriate order of law. In crafting this law we must prioritize fairness -- the concept that anyone, regardless of the conditions of their birth, would be treated equally. This doesn't mean that we are born into equal conditions; quite the opposite. The concentration of unearned privilege in a jury results in unfair treatment of those whose struggles are incomprehensible to privileged minds. 

To enjoy the benefit of order of law, it truly is a duty for every citizen to report for service. Every election year, we work hard to enact and improve legislation to be most beneficial -- it's up to courts and jury to make real on these words.

I was disturbed by the jury selection process that I witnessed and am trying to contact the ACLU Voting Rights attorney to follow up. A few years ago the ACLU complained that by restricting their jury address database to DMV and Registrar of Voters records, citizens who most frequently move without updating those agencies -- low-income blacks and Latinos -- would be under-represented in juries. The article outlines measures that have helped other court districts in the past. It is my intention that Alameda County will update the way it contacts its own citizens to create juries that are truly of our peers.

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