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Lawsuit seeks end to NY’s ban on jurors with felony records

December 8, 2022 Michael R. Sisak, Associated Press
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A New York civil rights organization sued the state’s court system Thursday seeking to overturn a law barring people with felony convictions from serving on juries.

The New York Civil Liberties Union argues that the statute spelling out qualifications for jury service disproportionately excludes Black men, leaving Black people significantly underrepresented in the jury pool.

New York is just the latest state where the status quo of who’s allowed to serve on a jury is being challenged amid broader pushes for criminal justice reforms. California changed its law in 2020 to let people with felony records be jurors, but most states and federal courts still ban them.

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The New York lawsuit, filed in federal court with the Community Service Society of New York and the law firm Clarick Gueron Reisbaum, focuses on the law’s impact in Manhattan — though the restrictions apply to courts in all 62 New York counties.

According to the suit, about 25% of Black residents in Manhattan — approximately 38,000 people — are prohibited from serving on a jury because of a felony conviction, which the NYCLU said is a result of aggressive policing and prosecution of Black residents.

Of Black men living in Manhattan, about 40% have disqualifying felony convictions, the lawsuit said.

“Jury disenfranchisement not only shuts thousands of Black Manhattan residents out of civic engagement, but it strips people of their right to be judged by a jury of their peers,” NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said, calling the push to reverse the law “a racial justice imperative.”

“A jury system that underrepresents Black New Yorkers is one that ultimately sends more Black New Yorkers to jail, and it’s one that needs to be overhauled,” Lieberman said.

The NYCLU is suing the court system via a single named defendant: Manhattan’s county clerk and jury commissioner, Milton Tingling.

A spokesperson for the state court system said that strategy is misguided because it’s state lawmakers who made the rules for jury qualification, not Tingling or the courts.

The lawsuit “is taking issue with a statute passed by the New York State Legislature that lays out the qualifications of jurors,” Lucian Chalfen said in an email. “Until such time as the Legislature changes the law or a court of competent jurisdiction declares it invalid, Commissioners of Jurors are sworn to enforce these qualifications.”

The lawsuit’s one named plaintiff, Daudi Justin, is a public defender who represents people in court but is precluded from being a juror because of a 2009 drug conviction. Justin’s offense was considered a felony at the time but is now classified as a misdemeanor, according to the lawsuit.

“For far too long in this country, felon jury exclusion has been used to systematically deny Black people the opportunity to fully participate in the democratic process,” Justin said. “Even when people have completed their sentences, the legal system puts up barriers that relegate us to second-class citizenship.”

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