For decades, there has been criticism, court challenges, and landmark rulings regarding how jury pools in each county are composed. I can actually think of numerous examples of when citizens have complained to me about being called for jury duty way too frequently.
There have also been complaints of underrepresentation of Blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities on grand juries and trial juries for years. This problem has been real in some counties, but in others it is not.
However, the General Assembly has noticed this problem and finally has come up with a potential solution that may significantly improve the problem.
We are about to see a big change as a result of the Jury Reform Act of 2011. Because this Act is lengthy and somewhat complex, I will just provide a very brief overview.
This act, which became effective July 1, 2012, established a new method of creating county jury pools. Each year, a statewide master list will be divided into 159 county master jury lists. The clerk of court for each county will then randomly select individuals to comprise their jury panels for trial weeks. The new law will apply to criminal as well as civil jury pools.
Interestingly, the new law gives the Council of Superior Court Clerks of Georgia, which is responsible for maintaining this list, the authority to request from the Department of Driver Services (DDS) the lists of people possessing a valid or expired driver’s license, or a state issued personal identification card. Voter registration records will be used as well. The idea is to keep an updated list of every eligible juror in Georgia. Remember that only citizens of the state of Georgia and the county where the trial will take place are eligible to serve on juries.
This new system will replace the much criticized “forced balancing system” that has been used for a number of years. Forced balancing was created to ensure that women and minorities were adequately represented in jury pools throughout the state. The problem was that this system used data from each U.S. Census, which only occurs every 10 years. Some counties in Georgia were experiencing extremely rapid changes in demographics every year. Thus, the jury pools comprised right before the new Census would be vastly different from the true demographic makeup of a particular county.
This antiquated practice will end because it simply does not work.
The new law will be a challenge to our county clerks, lawyers, judges, and our citizens. I am sure that there will be some problems as we are making this big change. However, each day and each year, good men and women strive to uphold the Constitution. By doing away with the old forced balancing system and replacing it with the new law, we come closer to having juries that truly represent our current society. While the new law will present challenges to our judicial system, it will eventually be seen as a good fundamental change in how we seek justice in our state.
I would ask each of you to have patience, particularly with the clerk’s office in your county. They will be working very hard to implement this system as efficiently and as soon as possible. In the end, I expect great results from the Jury Reform Act of 2011.
Swindle is a local attorney at law.