Bill to Cut Back Juror Strikes|Stalled in California Legislature

     (CN) – A bill to reduce the number of peremptory challenges for misdemeanor trials in California has been held up in the Legislature amid concerns that it could result in more biased juries and won’t actually save the courts money.
     SB 213, which would cut back peremptory challenges in misdemeanor trials in California from 10 to six, has been touted as a time-and cost-saving measure for the courts.
     Its author, state Sen. Marty Block, D-San Diego, said an added boon for the public is that they’ll have to take less time off from work just to wait around jury rooms. Likewise, police officers will spend less time in court and more time actually policing.
     “It makes all the sense in the world. It’s just good efficiency,” Block said, adding that he feels so passionately about the idea that he supported a similar jury-reform bill last year that died in the Assembly. “That’s why I picked it up this year,” he said.
     This year’s effort enjoyed resounding support from all 58 of the state’s presiding judges, the California Judges Association and the Judicial Council – the courts’ rule-making body.
     Even so, SB 213 failed to make it out of the Assembly’s public safety committee after the chair, Assemblyman Bill Quirk, D-Hayward, asked that it be made into a two-year bill.
     Block said he didn’t understand the thinking behind Quirk’s delay of the bill, when the rest of the committee supported it.
     “The LA District Attorney had concerns and he said that gave him some concerns. I don’t think there was anything rational about it,” Block said.
     Judge Joan Weber of San Diego, president of California Judges Association, said the group is in talks with Quirk and his staff. “We are having productive discussions with the chair of Assembly Public Safety, Bill Quirk, and his staff which will be continuing into the fall. CJA will continue to work hard for passage of this important bill,” Weber said in an email.
     Quirk did not respond to a request for comment.
     Unlike challenges for cause, peremptory challenges allow an attorney to reject a potential juror without stating a reason. In a letter to Quirk, Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey said the bill would hamper selection of a diverse and unbiased jury.
     “By limiting the use of peremptory challenges SB 213 has the real potential to result in less diverse and more biased juries because of the prosecutor’s or defense counsel’s inability to remove a juror they believe is biased and therefore unqualified to serve as a juror, but cannot prove to the satisfaction of the judge that the potential juror should be removed ‘for cause,'” she wrote.
     San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, whose office has been one of the bill’s fiercest opponents, said he thinks the bill will actually consume more time and money.
     “They pointed to cost savings. I think that their analysis was thinly researched and not really well thought out. We would have to spend more time convincing a judge that a juror should be excused for cause,” Adachi said. “It’s a Trojan horse because it seemingly offers these reforms that a lay person who doesn’t want to serve on a jury might agree to, but it attacks things that are so fundamental.”
     Lacey was also concerned about the bill’s six-year sunset period, which she wrote “all but guarantees there will be lengthy and costly appellate challenges to any and all guilty verdicts rendered by a jury with limited peremptory challenges if its provisions sunset.”
     Ignacio Hernandez, a lobbyist for California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, said he just doesn’t see a reason for the bill.
     “This is the most recent in many failed attempts to do this. We did not receive any convincing evidence that there was a need to reduce the number of peremptory challenges in California,” he said, adding that he also hasn’t seen any evidence that the bill could actually save money.
     “We are always disturbed when you have a group of judges arguing under the banner of court efficiency, their idea to roll back what is a core protection for those accused of crimes,” he said. “Even if this were to generate $1 million in savings, it should be the last place we look to cut. Why start there for such a small savings that’s even questionable is beyond us.”
     Supporters have argued that SB 213 would simply bring the state in line will the rest of the country, where the majority of states have fewer than 10 peremptory challenges. New York is also an exception.
     But Hernandez pointed out that California’s criminal laws are different from most states. “In many states there are categories of misdemeanors, or different degrees of misdemeanors. We don’t have that. In other states, their misdemeanor cases are no more than six months. Here than can be misdemeanors up to a year. In other states they don’t have a lifetime sex offender registration. So it’s not quite apples to apples. The worst-case scenario is that California is the gold standard for due process rights which is something we should celebrate and preserve,” he said.
     Adachi said he expects to keep fighting to keep the peremptory challenge count at ten. “This is a bill which, in various forms, keeps coming back – just like the shark in ‘Jaws,'” he said. “I know that politics is behind this. They’ve got the governor’s support on this. It may not die. We’re going to keep fighting it. This may become a Roman war that goes on for ten years.”

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