Ban Uncle Ben’s From the Jury Box

Like a box of Uncle Ben’s white rice, it seems some courts have similarly designed their jury selection process to ensure the grains sitting in the box are as white as rice. The right to a jury of your peers is woven into the Constitution, and the founding documents; yet, recent litigation asserts that at least one Louisiana court is not doing enough to ensure that accused persons are judged by a jury of their peers. 

In this 2021 litigation, data showed that black citizens, who comprised 31.1% of the community, appeared as possible jurors at a dismal rate of 19.26%. After vigorously defending its use of registered voters lists to select potential jurors, this court, following the litigation, abruptly updated its Jury Plan to include state-licensed drivers with updates every two years, compared to exclusive use of voter registration lists with updates every four years. I suspect the disparity in voter registration records by race caught their eye.  

The change didn’t go far enough though. The new system, like the old one, relies on outdated addresses, causing a high rate of returned or unanswered jury duty notices. When this happens, the clerk randomly selects new, potential jurors using the same process. Much like a chef preparing a routinely cooked dish, this system produces the same results?results that are as white as rice. The court contends sending mail is all they are duty-bound to do, even if they are being sent to a stale address. Experts warn that this transient patterns and high rates of mobility are predictable phenomena that occur incident to poverty. Courts should listen and end this “Uncle Ben’s” approach to summoning a jury. 

There are ways to verify addresses. A tax database could be cross-referenced. This could ensure potential juror information was updated yearly. In Pennsylvania, the district courts improved questionnaire response rates by implementing frequent address checks through the U.S. Postal Service’s updated addresses list then they created committees to educate the public on the importance of filling out and returning the questionnaires. 

To satisfy the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a jury must reflect a “cross section”  of the community. If high rates of potential black jurors are excluded from jury service because of failed processes, a large fraction of the district’s juror box remains as white as rice. Perhaps when these offending courts tend to their Six Amendment problem, they can reward themselves with a nice meal, complete with both brown and white rice options.

Jada Wisdorf is a law school student at Southern University Law Center.

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