Arkansas prosecutor under fire for collecting signatures for judicial run while trying a murder case

Arkansas prosecutor Stephanie Potter Barrett, who is seeking a seat on the state’s Court of Appeals, has come under criticism after it was revealed that her aunt was collecting signatures to get Barrett on the ballot inside the courthouse. More distressingly, at least one of the signatures favoring Barrett’s candidacy was from a juror seated in a murder trial which Barrett was prosecuting.

Barrett insists that she did nothing wrong; she did not collect the signatures herself, and she argues that the courthouse is a public space at which collection of signatures is permitted. But others are not so sure: several ethics experts pointed out that judges cannot use the courthouse to engage in political activity, and suggest that a judicial candidate should be equally restricted. The defendant in the murder trial is also seeking a mistrial based on the juror signature.

It is entirely possible that Barrett really believes that she has done nothing wrong. And it is also entirely possible that the juror who signed the petition knows nothing about Barrett, or even associated her petition with the individual prosecuting the case. (Some people will sign anything.) But the optics are terrible. The courthouse appears politicized, and the fairness of the murder conviction is in doubt.

Reasonable people may differ over the propriety of choosing judges through a direct election. But elections open the door to these kinds of stories, and these kinds of stories erode public confidence in the judiciary and the administration of justice itself.

Canada’s federal criminal reform bill put on hold

A bill that would introduce a wide range of reforms into Canada’s federal criminal justice system has been tabled. Among other things, Bill C-75 would:

  • Take measures to decrease significant court delays;
  • Eliminate peremptory challenges of jurors;
  • Remove “zombie” parts of the criminal code that have been found unconstitutional; and
  • Increase the maximum sentence for repeat domestic abusers.

We will continue to keep an eye on the bill’s progress, if any, in the coming months.

New York appellate court affirms restrictions on juror anonymity

Under New York law, trial judges may withhold jurors’ addresses from the public and the parties if there is a concern for juror safety. The judge, however, may not withhold the names of jurors. A purely anonymous jury is thought to compromise due process for criminal defendants.

The New York Times reports that a state appellate court recently upheld these restrictions.  In a criminal trial involving four members of an alleged street gang, the trial court declined to provide juror names to counsel, identifying jurors only by number.  Defense lawyers objected, but the trial judge cited to jurors in previous cases who had expressed concerns about their safety. The defendants appealed.

This week, the appeals court sided with the defendants and granted them a new trial, holding that the trial court had violated the statute’s prohibition on purely anonymous juries.

Courts try new tactics to address those who skip jury duty

The Oregonian has an interesting article on the efforts of state and federal courts to crack down on citizens not appearing for jury duty.  The story nicely describes the range of tactics in play, from jury coordinators and James Taylor concert videos to being individually summoned and grilled by an irritated judge.

Jury trials are central to the American justice system, and citizens who serve on a jury almost always walk away with a better appreciation for the court system and their own civic responsibilities.

Kansas weighs whether to shield the identity of jurors

Earlier this year, the Kansas District Judges Association proposed a bill that would shield the names of jurors from the public. The bill passed both houses of the Kansas legislature. But the Kansas Press Association challenged the bill before a final vote could be taken, arguing that the state courts had obligations of transparency, and that hiding the identity of jurors made it more difficult to hold the justice system accountable. The judges’ association agreed, and reached a compromise with the press association that would make jurors’ names and addresses available, but not other information about them. The changes are expected to be worked out in legislative conference committee.

This is a nice example of the courts and the press recognizing the difficulty of balancing individual privacy and public duty in the modern age, and working together to address the problem. There is no simple answer, and while a handful of states do shield the identity of jurors completely, the Kansas Press Association is correct that public obligations like jury duty require a degree of public accountability. If we want to maintain a public system of dispute resolution, every member of the public needs to take ownership of it in an appropriate way.