Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Hyperlocalism in Juries

The Washington Supreme Court heard arguments in City of Bothell v. Barnhart a few weeks ago, and I just saw it on TV. I happened to catch a few minutes of Barnhart's argument at bar this morning on my lunch break. Here's the background as summarized on the Supreme Court's blog:
City of Bothell v. Barnhart, No. 84907-2. James Barnhart was convicted by jury in the Bothell Municipal Court of stalking. The Superior Court affirmed the conviction. Bothell is one of a few cities in the state that is located in two counties—both King and Snohomish Counties. Barnhart was charged in Snohomish but two jurors from King County sat on the panel. The Court of Appeals held that the Washington Constitution (Art. I, Sec. 22) requires that a defendant be tried by a jury of the county where alleged offense was committed. The court held that Barnhart’s jury trial right was violated, reversed the conviction, and remanded for a new trial.
The State Supreme Court granted review. The City of Bothell argues that the true community in which Banhart committed his crime was the City of Bothell, regardless of county lines that divide the city. The trial court is run by the City as a whole, and often hears cases originating from crimes in both Sno and King counties. Conceptually, there is some support for the city's argument that local means municipal in 6th Amendment jurisprudence.

Barnhart's argument is that the jury was not constitutionally impaneled because two members resided in King County, relying on the plain reading of § 21 & 22 of the Washington state's constitution. § 21 explicitly defines community as having to do with a county. The principle that juries must represent the local population is well-agreed upon. The question lies in choosing the correct set arbitrary political lines that define community.

Localism is an important principle in American constitutional thought. In the Declaration of Independence enumerated grievances, the deprivation of jury trials and the removal of trials to English courts feature prominently. It's no wonder; juries are a local democratic constraint on judges and prosecutors. In the British empire, both judges and prosecutors were appointed by the colonial governors, themselves appointed by the crown. Juries were able to halt prosecutions against American patriots. The jury in the Zenger case changed the course of sedition jurisprudence in the Colonies. The jury-forged acquittal is often cited as the basis for the American constitutional incarnation of freedom of the press.

Juries have a special role to play against imperial prosecutors and admittedly unobjective judges. Cities have stressed the importance of 'community policing' initiatives, but the parallel importance of impaneling community juries has not been pursued. Such a hyperlocal focus would not only establish greater faith in the legal process for disadvantaged communities; it would make the legal process more fair.

The attorney for the City of Bothell argued that Bothell is a distinct community from King or Snohomish counties, and as such, should enjoy an integrity of community that county lines should not tear asunder. Honing in on the arbitrary nature of political boundaries, one of the Washington Supreme Court Justices asked if Seattle, for instance, doesn't also possess a multitude of distinct communities within its borders. A local focus in jury selection would also increase interest in justice in general, as well as provide neighborhoods with compelling shared narratives. The Neighborhood Watch program involves neighbors with policing, creating a safer community; neighborhood juries would involve neighbors with justice, creating a more peaceful community.

Calling jurors from across cities to sit on a jury has bred a total lack of interest. The 'good citizen' type deplores the lack of 'civic mindedness' in complaining about jury duty. Maybe we should give people something to look forward to when they are summoned to court: local crime, local knowledge, and community building.

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