Protecting fair, impartial adjudication is always essential and, for African Americans, now more than ever. Courts protect the rights of everyone, including businesses, individuals and even people who do not have access to the courts. Courts do this by making sure both sides are heard – whether it’s a criminal case, a contract case, or a tort case – and that the case is decided based on the evidence and the law, and not on anything else.
Courts protect the public by being the place where prosecutors can seek justice in criminal cases. Courts can also protect the public by holding companies responsible for defective products or by striking down a law or practice that is discriminatory.
Courts hold lawmakers accountable by making sure laws that are passed are fair – that they are clear enough to be understood, that they are applied to all people equally, and that they comply with the Constitution.
But courts can only do this effectively if they are fair, impartial, and independent.
Jurors are vital in the American system of justice. Judges determine the law to be applied in a case, but the jury decides the facts. Thus, importantly, jurors become a part of the court itself. A jury trial is a significantly vital part of our system of checks and balances. “Checks and balances” beyond a shadow of doubt means that the judicial branch of government is equal to the other two branches (executive and legislative) and has the power to overturn laws or acts of government that violate constitutional rights.
Better Together’s proposed changes to Article V of the Missouri Constitution provides for the merging of the 21st and 22nd judicial circuit courts creating a dilution effect, delocalizing juries and often diluting any significant minority representation. The systematic exclusion of women and racial minorities from jury service persisted in some states well into the 20th century – and the merging of the 21st and 22nd judicial circuits will have the same impact.
The right of a defendant to be judged by “a jury of one’s peers” is a bedrock concept in American justice, dating to ancient English common law. The 21st Judicial Circuit (St. Louis County) is overwhelmingly white. Thus, moving beyond the City of St. Louis to draw a jury pool for court cases inevitably dilutes minority representation and subjects African-American City residents to a patchwork response to newsworthy events and the political popularity of crime legislation.
There are numerous studies that indicate that black defendants are treated less punitively vis-a-vis nonblack defendants as the proportion of blacks on the juries increases. Moreover, as the number of black jurors increases, death sentences become less likely. It thus becomes apparent that juror decision making in capital cases is highly sensitive to the demographic makeup of the jury.
The impact of this apparently gathering trend thus becomes something akin to the dilution effect observed in voting rights cases. Just as the minority vote gets diluted in at-large districting schemes but can be captured by demographically sensitive districting, the values of minority communities are more likely to be subsumed in juries drawn from a larger combined judicial circuits than they would be in smaller, city-based circuit court juries.
The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly suggested that the composition of a given petit jury is relevant to its legitimacy. When a demographic conception is realized, the individuals making up a given petit jury appropriately reflect the demographic composition of the overall population – a measure we have relatively achieved in the 22nd Judicial Circuit (City of St. Louis).
In conclusion, and on behalf of the Executive Committee of the St. Louis City Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (“St. Louis City NAACP”), we diametrically oppose merging the 21st and 22nd judicial circuits – via Better Together's proposed constitutional amendment and its dilution effect
Adolphus M. Pruitt is president of the St. Louis NAACP.