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May 02, 2022 Ethics Column

Judicial Ethics and the Diverse Jury

By Marla N. Greenstein

Judges have a difficult line to walk when addressing jury issues. Potential jurors are largely vetted by the advocates in the courtroom, and the judge’s role is limited. In fact, judges must be cautious in their interactions with jurors to ensure that they understand the judge’s impartial neutral role in the trial. So how can a judge ethically assist in achieving the goal of a diverse jury?

Judges have a duty to promote confidence in the judiciary. Comment 4 to Rule 1.2 of the ABA Model Code of Judicial Conduct states that judges should “promote access to justice for all.” As the jury system is fundamental to “justice for all,” judicial efforts to improve the jury system are ethical obligations for judges. While judges need to be cautious when addressing jury issues in cases before them, judges can be useful and helpful observers of practical impediments to jury service. Judges hear requests from those who seek to be excused from jury service that may include the need for access to day care services, transportation impediments, family obligations during the average court day, or personal physical needs. By communicating these obstacles to jury service to those administering the jury pools, judges can assist in developing progressive solutions to address them.

So, too, judges can serve on administrative committees and speak to public groups about both the importance of jury service and the importance that jury service be accessible to all. Judges who observe a lack of diversity in the jury pool or among the actual seated jurors may be in a good position to assess the underlying causes for that lack of diversity. As leaders within the courtroom, and within the greater court system, judges have a vantage point and a range of experiences that can benefit court personnel charged with improving the jury system.

There are also misconceptions about jury service that judicial outreach efforts can dispel. Potential jurors may be under a false perception that they will serve on a month-long trial, when, in reality, typical jury trials in a location may last only three or four days. So too, accommodations to specific jurors’ needs should be made known in advance. If court sites provide parking, lunch or lunch vouchers, monetary compensation, or day care services; all should be publicized not only by court administration but by judges as well. Elderly jurors with hearing difficulties may not be aware of hearing assistance devices available in the court. A young person with a new job may not be aware that their employer supports jury service.

Judge Geraci’s piece provides a blueprint for judges seeking to increase diversity among the jurors who enter their courtrooms. While the solutions may be complex, a judge’s leadership can often engage court administrators, attorneys, and community groups to contribute their ideas and work to ensure that our juries truly represent the communities they serve. When juries look like their community, the community, in turn, will gain confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the justice system. Judges should not hesitate to rise to the challenge, encouraging community members to be their partners in justice.

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By Marla N. Greenstein

Marla N. Greenstein is the executive director of the Alaska Commission on Judicial Conduct. She is also a former chair of the ABA Judicial Division’s Lawyers Conference. She can be reached at [email protected].