New lawsuit challenges exclusion of convicted felons from New York juries

An empty jury box is seen at the New York State Civil Supreme Court in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., September 11, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

(Reuters) - A new lawsuit is seeking to block Manhattan state court officials from enforcing a state law permanently barring people with past felony convictions from serving on juries, saying the law discriminates against Black New Yorkers.

The complaint, filed in Manhattan federal court Thursday by public defender Daudi Justin alongside the non-profit Community Service Society of New York, says the ban violates both the U.S. Constitution's Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury and the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection.

"Jury disenfranchisement not only shuts thousands of Black Manhattan residents out of civic engagement, but it strips people of their right to be judged by a jury of their peers," said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which represents the plaintiffs. "A jury system that underrepresents Black New Yorkers is one that ultimately sends more Black New Yorkers to jail, and it’s one that needs to be overhauled."

Lucian Chalfen, a spokesperson for the state court system, said in an email the courts must continue enforcing the bar "(u)ntil such time as the Legislature changes the law or a court of competent jurisdiction declares it invalid."

Daudi served nearly two years in prison after pleading guilty to possession of a controlled substance in 2009. The experience led him to want to become a public defender, which he did after graduating from college and law school following his release, according to the complaint.

The lawsuit alleges that the bar on convicted felons serving on juries excludes Black New Yorkers because they are historically more likely to have been targeted by law enforcement. That in turn contributes to a racially skewed jury pool, which harms Black defendants, it said.

About 25% of otherwise eligible Black New Yorkers, and 40% of otherwise eligible Black men, are excluded from jury service under the policy, according to the lawsuit. While people can apply to have their jury service rights reinstated, the process is burdensome and arbitrary, it said.

More than 20 states have similar permanent bans on jury service for felons, according to a survey by the Prison Policy Initiative.

Other states bar convicted felons from jury service for only a limited amount of time after they complete their sentences, while only a handful restore eligibility as soon as a sentence is completed.

Excluding felons from juries has drawn growing opposition in recent years. California in 2020 passed a new law allowing people with felony convictions who are not on parole or probation to serve on jurors.

The case is Justin v. Tingling, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 1:22-cv-10370.

For plaintiffs: Perry Grossman of the New York Civil Liberties Union, Isaac Zaur of Clarick Gueron Reisbaum and others

For the state: Not available

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Thomson Reuters

Brendan Pierson reports on product liability litigation and on all areas of health care law. He can be reached at brendan.pierson@thomsonreuters.com.