I am a former New York State Supreme Court Justice. In 2014, I retired after re-election to accept the appointment as County Clerk and Commissioner of Jurors of New York County. In doing so, I became the first Black County Clerk and Commissioner of Jurors in the 230 year, 62 county, history of New York State.
Jury duty is a right and a privilege. Most countries of the world do not have jury systems. Those that do use them in specific and limited fashions. In America, juries are used in both criminal and civil trials. In recent times we have seen the explosion of contracts waiving the right to trial and the imposition of mandatory arbitration. There are even movements seeking the elimination of jury trials.
Juries have historically and presently been viewed as an institution deeply rooted in the soil of systemic racism and prejudice. This perception is not entirely untrue.
The seeds of this perception include:
• The initial Three-Fifths Compromise of the U.S. Constitution;
• The Black Codes which barred Blacks from serving on juries and Jim Crow laws that barred persons from serving on juries based on one’s prior criminal conviction;
• The imposition of poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses which not only prevented persons of color from voting, but also from serving on juries;
• Judges and attorneys in civil and criminal cases who are far too accommodating to persons of color who are seemingly equivocal about serving on a jury.
“I don’t have time to serve on a jury.” “I don’t vote because they use those lists to call you to jury service.” “I served years ago.” “It’s easy to get out of jury duty, just say you hate the police.” “The system is racist so it doesn’t matter.” “I just tear up the notice.”
Sound familiar? Maybe you’ve heard it or said it. Perhaps you did it.
If the perception of juries being racist and prejudiced has a basis in reality, then these words and deeds also contribute to it. For communities of color which have been historically and systemically excluded from jury service this can no longer be the case. If you don’t do jury duty, you voluntarily give away your say in doing justice. Communities of color most often associate systemic bias and racism to criminal trials. Failures to exercise their power through sitting on juries in criminal trials can be stones in the Black brick road of wrongful convictions sending people of color off to see the grand wizard. (Just as important, failures to exercise their power in sitting on juries in civil trials may deprive people of color from receiving just compensation in civil cases such as personal injury or contract disputes.)
In addition, a felony conviction almost always eliminates the right to vote for the convicted person. Voting creates the opportunity to make changes to the system. And change is possible. New York State now only prohibits persons who are currently incarcerated pursuant to sentence or on parole, from voting. In fact, in the past year Governor Cuomo granted pardons to over 30,000 persons on parole in New York limited and solely to be able to vote. Bail reform, police reforms, addressing stop-and-frisk, closing of Rikers Island are just some of the things that communities of color have long complained about that have or are in the process of change.
People of all colors have petitioned, protested, marched, sat in, fought and died for the opportunity and right of people of color to serve on juries and make decisions as jurors who happen to be people of color. Today people demonstrate for change. They shout Black Lives Matter. If you believe Black Lives Matter––if you believe Any Lives Matter––then do your jury duty and be part of making that change. As a juror your voice and vote matter to a life. Faith without works is an unchanged life. Jury service is a duty. It is a right. It is a privilege. Quite frankly, for communities of color it has to be an obligation. An obligation to the sons, daughters, grandchildren and neighbors of the community. An obligation to ourselves.
The Honorable Milton A. Tingling served as a Civil Court Judge and a Supreme Court Justice in New York State.