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Rochester district judge issues ‘corrective action’ to improve jury pool formation

Chief judge ordered a change to the jury selection process on Monday in response to concerns that the racial makeup of juries is nowhere near reflecting Minnesota’s diversity.

Minnesota Third Judicial District Administration
The Third Judicial District Administration on Thursday, July 21, 2022, in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — A Rochester judge ordered a change to the jury selection process on Monday in response to concerns that the racial makeup of juries is nowhere near reflecting Minnesota’s diversity.

“Minnesota’s population continues to become more plural,” Third Judicial District Chief Judge Joseph Bueltel writes in his order . "The representativeness of the district’s jury panels needs improvement … These corrective actions are directed at increasing the representativeness of the district’s jury panels and increasing the rate of response from summoned jurors across the district.”

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The order requires jury summons and questionnaire forms in the Third District, which includes Rochester, to be translated into languages other than English, such as Spanish, Somali, Hmong and Karen, a language originating from the area of Myanmar and Thailand, and to have these made available online.

It also edits the language on the form to clarify that there is no exact level of English language skill required, and instead jurors should come to court to discuss their eligibility with the judge if they are unsure.

Third District’s Chief Court Administrator and Jury Commissioner Shelley Ellefson, who will be overseeing the implementation of these changes, said Thursday that she’s not sure what the process will entail, but that she’ll be working with the State Court Administrator’s Office to determine next steps.

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The Post Bulletin reached out to Bueltel and State Court Administration for comment, but they declined to respond saying they’d prefer to let the order speak for itself.

This development is a result of a formal letter sent in April to Bueltel from the Third District’s Committee for Equity and Justice. The letter, which stated that people of color are substantially underrepresented at every stage of the jury selection process, requested Bueltel take action to “ameliorate the glaring and long-standing racial disparities.”

The Committee for Equity and Justice made six recommendations to improve the issue, such as sending jury summons more than once and providing interpreters in the courtroom for non-native English speakers.

The Post Bulletin reported on CEJ’s work as part of an in-depth investigation into the jury selection process in May. Bueltel’s order implements one of the committee’s recommendations.

Cresston Gackle, Assistant Public Defender of the Third District Public Defender's Office, helped draft the letter and said he is pleased with its outcome, especially as Bueltel’s order allows anyone who can communicate orally in English to participate in the jury process.

“There’s plenty of people that can do exactly that and they should not be disqualified from serving on juries and rendering decisions on behalf of the community,” Gackle said. “The courts need to recognize that there’s a lot of mistrust and history between minority populations and the justice system. The least we can do to make people feel welcome and like they are wanted is to speak in their native language.”

Bueltel’s order is historic. Two attorneys said this is the first time, as far as they know, that a Minnesota chief judge has used this authority, even though the precedent is written into law.

Corey Sherman, training director for the public defender system, said she was encouraged to see a chief judge ordering change, but she said she is disappointed that CEJ’s other five recommendations were denied — some which were denied due to cost and potential technological issues.

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“Anytime we venture to change a system there will be costs and hurdles, but they are worth taking on to create an inclusive system,” Sherman said. “I am hoping that the order encourages other districts to take a careful look at their systems for ways to increase access to our jury system. I also hope that we are not afraid to abandon outdated and unfair systems simply because we cannot immediately imagine how to create new ones.”

Gackle said he looks forward to more change down the road. Conversations about jury inclusivity were already happening, but he said George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis moved racial equity higher up on the court system’s agenda. It’s become clear that many Minnesotans of color “have no confidence in the whole system,” Gackle said.

Cresston Gackle
Cresston Gackle, Assistant Public Defender of the Third District Public Defender's Office, helped draft the letter to Chief Judge Joseph Bueltel requesting changes to the jury selection process.
Contributed / Cresston Gackle

Gackle is not the only one hard at work on this issue. He said the defense in Minnesota has hosted several presentations on racial equity and the importance of representative juries to public trust.

“You will find that everybody who works in the justice system, at some level, wants everyone to be confident about the results we reach in the justice system,” he said.

In the future, Gackle hopes that this momentum will lead to the jury issue being addressed at the state level as well — by increasing juror pay, for example, so more jurors can participate regardless of financial means. In five to 10 years, he wants to see non-native English speakers participating smoothly in the jury process.

“The status quo is unacceptable,” he said. “We can't wait for more data … We can't simply prove our case forwards and backwards again. That's not enough. We have to take some level of action.”

In Olmsted County the percentage of Black residents in the jury pool is 59% less than it should be, to reflect the makeup of the local population.

While the jury selection process would appear to be race neutral — jury summons are sent to a random selection of people and, after questioning for potential bias, a 12-person jury is selected from the pool and sworn in. However, racial disparities in the jury box continue.

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Some issues are administrative. The master source list of all potential Minnesota jurors is compiled by merging voter registration records and drivers license logs (including state IDs) — two sources where white Minnesotans are more thoroughly represented than non-whites. Many residents don’t receive their summons because it is sent to an old address.

Jury service is a financial burden for many, so some jurors are excluded due to financial hardship. In some Minnesota counties, the juror per diem rate doesn’t even cover the cost of parking. Court rules also disqualify potential jurors who have been convicted of a felony and are incarcerated or doing probation, which disproportionately targets people of color who are arrested at higher rates.

Although the issue was acknowledged by the state court system in the 1990s and again in 2021, few recommended solutions have been implemented.

Molly Castle Work is an award-winning investigative journalist. She has investigated a range of topics such as OSHA and worker safety during COVID-19, racially-disproportionate juries and white-owned newspapers' role in promoting lynchings. Readers can reach Molly at 507-285-7771 or mwork@postbulletin.com.
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