A Jury of One's Peers?

by Charles A. Keller, III. Esq.

Imagine you are accused of a crime in your community. You plead "not guilty." You demand a trial before a jury of your peers as is your right. But when the jury marches in, none of them look like you do and then you find out that almost none of them are from the place where you are now standing trial.

Now imagine that you are a citizen curious about the jury system in your community. After some investigation, you discover that almost all of the jurors for cases in your community live outside of your community. Further, you find out that although these citizens are free to enter and sit in judgment in your community, you are prevented from sitting as a juror in their community. Such a system sounds inherently unfair to both citizens and litigants and would not possibly be allowed, right? Wrong. This is exactly the state of the jury system in Onondaga County and numerous other counties throughout New York State.

One of the most fundamental rights reserved to all citizens in the United States is a right to trial by a jury of one's peers. This right is so important that it is twice referred to in the Constitution of the United States. Article III, Section 2, clause 3 of the Constitution states that, "The Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury." The Sixth Amendment provides that, "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district [emphasis added] wherein the crime shall have been committed…." In New York, this right to a jury "of one's peers" is guaranteed by the Judiciary Law. That law provides that a litigant "shall have the right to …petit juries selected at random from a fair cross-section of the community in the county or other governmental subdivision where in the court convenes…." This language is at the heart of a dispute that has arisen in Syracuse City Court over the jury system in Onondaga County and across New York State.

Inherent Unfairness
In August of 2002, a Syracuse resident was charged in Syracuse with Theft of Services and Resisting Arrest. He pled "not guilty" and the case of People v. Bradwell was scheduled for a jury trial on July 1, 2003 in Syracuse City Court. On that day, a panel of prospective jurors was brought over and so-called "juror questionnaires" were distributed to the lawyers. Upon review of the questionnaires, it was determined that out of 28 panelists, only two resided within the city of Syracuse and upon a visual inspection of the panel it was noted that there was only one African American and no Hispanics present. As the attorney for Mr. Bradwell, an African American, I lodged a challenge to the drawing of the panel on both statutory and Constitutional grounds.

After several hearings on the matter, it was learned that in every court in Onondaga County, whether it is County Court, Supreme Court, Town or Village Court, a litigant has a right to a jury composed of residents who reside within the jurisdiction of that court. Every court, that is, except one - Syracuse City Court. In Syracuse City Court, a litigant receives a jury panel composed mostly of county residents who reside outside the jurisdiction of the Court. What this means is that a resident of Skaneateles or Clay can be a juror on a Syracuse City Court case, but a Syracuse resident can never be a juror on a case in Skaneateles or Clay. Although Clay residents do not live within the city or pay taxes to the city or vote for city officials, they have the ability to decide disputes in a court of law within the city while a city resident has no such ability in Clay. This results in an inherent unfairness to both the litigants who have their cases decided and the citizens/potential jurors who live in Syracuse and are treated differently from everyone else in the county.

Minimum Chances for Minorities to Serve
Beyond the obvious unfairness to residents of Syracuse in terms of having outsiders take their places in the jury system, a more serious result of this system is that no matter what local court you are before, you will get a jury that minimizes the chances for African Americans and other minorities to serve as jurors. According to 2000 Census figures, African Americans over the age of 18 make up over 20% of the population of Syracuse, but less than 8% of the population of Onondaga County. Outside the city of Syracuse, African Americans make up less than 2% of the residents of Onondaga County and some towns and villages, such as Skaneateles and Marcellus, have almost no minority population at all.

Graphic: Dan Newman

Using a county-wide panel in Syracuse City Court has the result of flooding the jury pool with county residents who are over 92% white. Since Syracuse has an African American population of over 20%, but less than 8% of the jurors on the county-wide panels currently used can be expected to be African-American, you get panels with only around one-third the number of African Americans that would be available on a city resident only panel. Conversely, every town and village court in Onondaga uses a panel only of those particular town and village residents, which means that less than 2% of those panels can be expected to be African American. If these town and village courts were given a county-wide panel like Syracuse City Court is given, then there would be four times as many African American jurors on those panels. This systematic disenfranchisement should not be acceptable and runs afoul of the rights to due process and equal protection under the laws guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States.

Unequal Treatment
This use of a county-wide panel is not even standard throughout New York State, though it is widespread. Several counties do use only
Other counties use a county-wide panel in their city courts but will provide a jury panel of city residents upon request. So a defendant accused of the same crime or a litigant in a civil case will be treated very differently depending upon what county they happen to be in, even though the laws governing those counties are identical. This disparate treatment also runs counter to the notion of equal protection under the law.

In the Bradwell case (along with several other similar challenge cases raised by the Syracuse University College of Law -Criminal Law Clinic), the OnondagaCounty District Attorney's Office and the Commissioner of Jurors both argued in favor of preserving the current system. The trial court disagreed, however, and ruled that the use of county-wide panels in Syracuse City Court violated New York law. Syracuse City Court Judge Langston C. McKinney ordered the Commissioner of Jurors to return a panel of prospective jurors drawn only from the city of Syracuse. That order was in turn stayed by another order from Onondaga County Supreme Court Justice Anthony Paris, who ruled that McKinney had misinterpreted state law and had acted without jurisdiction in ordering a new panel. Currently, Judge Paris' ruling is on appeal to the NYS


Charles is the Director of the Criminal Law Clinic at the Syracuse University College of Law.