Thursday, November 17, 2011

Editorial: DC Voting Rights v Federal Jury Service

by Bill Adler

A recent message on the Cleveland Park Listserv about Federal jury duty opened the door to the question of voting rights versus Federal jury service.

What do voting rights for District of Columbia residents have to do with Federal jury duty service? They could have a lot to do with Federal jury duty service. When we, District of Columbia residents, are called to serve on a Federal jury, we are tasked with deciding a case based on a laws made by people elected by
somebody else. When Congress votes on laws about copyright, drugs, gun trafficking, bribery, or campaign finance, Americans have an opportunity to talk their Representative and Senators to either advance or oppose that law. But we don't. If you are an American citizen living in the District of Columbia you
have no say in how our laws are made.

What can we do about that? If we can't influence laws before they are made, what about after they are passed? Can we have a say in the legislative process after the fact? Yes, we can. And we should. We should tell the judge who asks us if we can follow the law as jurors, "Because I do not have any say in how laws are made, because I have no voting representation in Congress, serving on a Federal jury is my only opportunity to affect the laws that govern me and that I have to judge others with."

I was just reading an article about the Stop Online Piracy Act, a controversial bill that I oppose. The article said that the bill's opponents should "call your congressperson on the phone." If this law passes the day may come when a Federal jury will be called upon to decide a case based on SOPA. If that happens, being
on a jury will be our only chance to have any input into that law.

Let me take a moment to talk about what I'm not proposing: I am not talking about District of Columbia jury duty service: The Council makes our laws and we are represented on the City Council. I am not talking about avoiding Federal jury duty service. In fact, judges should hear from us about how lack of
representation in Congress is unfair. I am not talking about jury nullification, which is when a jury acts in opposition to a judge's instructions. I'm talking about sending a message to Congress: If you want us to judge based on the laws you pass, give us the same rights as other Americans to have a say in how those
laws are made.

What about a fair trial? What happens to defendants when prospective jurors balk at serving? It certainly makes it harder to find a jury, but there can be no fair trial when a juror believes that the law or the process by which the law is made isn't fair in the first place. There can be no fair trial when the first and only time a citizen has a chance to express his views about a law is as a juror.

Imagine if every District resident who was called to Federal jury service expressed these views. Do you think that Congress would take notice? You bet they would. This is another path to voting rights, one that would be hard to ignore.


Bill Adler is the co-publisher of the Cleveland Park Listserv,

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