Forum focuses on importance of ethnically and racially diverse juries
By Natasha Dado | Thursday, 02.07.2013, 11:45 PM

DEARBORN-During a panel discussion on the importance of having ethnically and racially diverse juries, local groups and individuals were urged to bring attention to the issue by getting more Arab Americans to participate in jury duty.

 The discussion at the Lebanese American Heritage Club in Dearborn attracted a large crowd of Arab Americans last Wednesday including leaders from groups such as the Arab American Political Action Committee (AAPAC), Arab American Civil Rights League (ACRL), Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS), the Arab American Anti Discrimination Committee (ADC) and Yemeni American Benevolent Association (YABA).

The forum, under the banner “Why Diversity Matters and the Importance of Jury Diversity,” was organized by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. The panelists included Chief Judge for the Eastern District of Michigan, Gerald E. Rosen,  Judge Denise Page Hood, Judge Victoria A. Roberts, U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade, Chief Federal Defender Miriam Siefer, and Osama Siblani, publisher of The Arab American News.  The discussion was moderated by Assistant U.S. Attorney Abed Hammoud.

Speakers included Osama Siblani, publisher of The Arab American News, Chief Federal Defender Miriam Siefer, Chief Federal Judge for the Eastern District, Gerald E. Rosen, Judge Denise Page Hood, Judge Victoria A. Roberts and U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade.
Throughout the discussion, members of the community groups were asked to help educate Arab and Muslim Americans about jury diversity in order to increase their participation and encourage them to respond to jury duty when called upon by the courts.

The issue of jury diversity has recently become increasingly visible as a number of forums and strategies to get more minorities on juries have emerged. Often, minorities feel cheated when one of their own is on trial and the seated jury does not include people like them. The lack of jury diversity could negatively impact the outcome of a jury’s verdict.

In many local trials, attorneys have made claims that their clients were denied fair verdicts because of the jury makeup. At a similar forum on jury diversity in Detroit last July, the following questions were posed: Can a black defendant have a fair trial in a Detroit federal courthouse with an all white jury?  Will the negative images and portrayals of Arab and Muslim Americans in the media cloud a juror’s judgment?  

During the panel discussion in Dearborn this week, Siblani said that increasing the amount jurors are paid per day would likely convince more people to participate. Currently, jurors in Federal Court receive $40 a day for jury duty, and are reimbursed for gas and mileage. Other panelists noted that budget cuts made to the courts over the years could prevent the amount paid to jurors from increasing in the foreseeable future. 

Siblani also said that in addition to community organizations, it was important that religious leaders raise awareness about the issue during Friday prayers in mosques and Sunday services in churches. Judge Rosen discussed the possibility of having Arab Americans visit a court house to be more informed.

Another issue raised was the fear from employers retribution for absences due to jury service and the lack of compensation in these situations.  Judge Rosen said that it was illegal for employers to penalize employees for taking time off work to participate in the process and that the courts cannot force the employers to pay, however the community can play a role in this regard.

Chief Judge Rosen speaking and to his left Judge Denise Page Hood listening.
Judge Roberts said that defendants could still have fair trials even if the jurors are not diverse because jurors follow instructions and the law. But that might not be enough because an open and broad discussion should take place among jurors and having different ethnic and racial backgrounds on a jury will help foster such a discussion.

U.S. Attorney McQuade stated that having prosecutors of diverse backgrounds is sound policy because they can provide different perspectives when reviewing cases and considering charging decisions. Likewise, she added, having a diverse jury would also increase understanding about defendants and witnesses and their actions and statements, leading to a more just verdict. Judge Rosen added that the jury system works better when everyone serves and the entire community is represented. 

Chief Federal Defender Miriam Siefer commented that no matter what measures are taken to ensure that jury summons reach everyone, nothing will be effective unless people actually respond to the questionnaires they receive. "You have to get people to respond. Unless people fill out the questionnaire and mail it back nothing will change," said Siefer.

Siblani thanked the panel members, particularly the federal judges, noting that they’re appointed to serve lifetime terms, and not obligated to get involved in such issues, but have chosen to advocate for diverse juries in courtrooms because they’re passionate about justice.

After the panel discussion, the floor was open for questions from the audience which included local leaders and judges.  Some concerns were raised and several suggestions were made to help improve jury diversity.

By Natasha Dado

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