The right to an impartial jury is the linchpin of our justice system. Now, that fundamental protection is in jeopardy for millions of Californians.
Senate Bill 213, which comes before the Assembly Committee on Public Safety on Tuesday, would slash the number of peremptory challenges for misdemeanor criminal cases from 10 to six. A peremptory challenge is used to dismiss a juror whom a prosecutor or defense attorney suspects, but cannot prove, is biased.
The California Judges Association, which is behind the bill, says the change will make courts more efficient and save money.
But the state Judicial Council’s data show exactly why trading our constitutional rights for negligible savings is a bad bargain. In 2013, only 0.3 percent of the nearly 1 million misdemeanor cases filed in California made it in front of juries.
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In other words, justice for millions of residents is being jeopardized due to an illogical theory claiming 10 peremptory challenges is a serious obstacle to court efficiency. In fact, peremptory challenges speed up jury selection. Without them, lawyers would increase the number of “for cause” challenges, requiring each prospective juror to endure a lengthy examination in front of a judge to prove bias.
In addition, reducing peremptory challenges will disproportionately affect poor, African American and Latino Californians. Despite being the most ethnically diverse state, a jury of one’s peers is already a rarity. Juries continue to be overwhelmingly white and more affluent due to racial and socioeconomic disparities that affect who is eligible for jury service and who can afford the financial hardship.
Peremptory challenges, as the U.S. Supreme Court has often ruled, are an essential means for ensuring fairness. This is true in misdemeanor cases just as it is in felonies. Misdemeanor convictions can result in life-altering consequences, including the loss of jobs, professional licenses, housing or driver’s licenses.
Misdemeanor convictions can also trigger immigration consequences for non-citizens. Possession of drug paraphernalia, for example, can result in deportation even for a lawful permanent resident. Misdemeanors are anything but minor for those forced to leave their spouses and children behind.
Prospective jurors, like all of us, are complex and imperfect. Adopting a bill that would reduce the number of peremptory challenges in any criminal case undermines the integrity of California’s jury system. The selection of a fair, impartial jury representing a cross-section of the community is fundamental to both the prosecution and the defense.
That’s why prosecutors and defense attorneys alike – including Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey, the California Public Defenders Association and California Attorneys for Criminal Justice – all oppose SB 213.
Jeff Adachi is the elected public defender of San Francisco. Luis J. Rodriguez is past president of the State Bar of California.