Jury of Your Peers

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A San Diego judge recently called out city prosecutors for dismissing gay jurors because of their sexual orientation, breathing new life into the phrase "a jury of one's peers." The jury was to decide whether six protesters unlawfully blocked a county clerk's office during a Prop. 8 protest in 2010. But after prosecutors struck two gay jurors from the panel, the judge enforced a California law barring jury discrimination based on sexual orientation and removed all of the chosen jurors.

This kind of decision is welcome, but way too rare. While the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that jurors can't be dismissed solely because of their race or sex, it has never stopped attorneys from striking potential jurors based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. And just last year, the Justice Department declined to urge judges in the San Francisco-based Ninth Circuit to bar this brand of discrimination in federal court, despite a number of notorious cases where gay or transgendered people have been purposefully shut out of the jury room.

The beef here is not just that gay Americans have been wrongly denied an important role in our justice system that, let's face it, both gay and straight people often try to avoid. Jury discrimination also jeopardizes the right of people accused of crimes to get a fair trial. If jurors can be dismissed simply for being gay, with no evidence of bias, then the defendant is deprived of an impartial jury drawn from a fair cross-section of the community -- one that includes the life experiences of its racial and LGBT minorities. And the community also deserves to have the perspectives of its LGBT members represented in the jury panel. That was one of the lessons of the Dan White murder trial, in which all gay people were weeded out of the jury regardless of bias, and the ensuing voluntary manslaughter verdict prompted a riot.

While California eventually banned that kind of discrimination, the federal courts and most other states have not. It's time for that to change. We deserve a justice system that judges fairly and represents us all.

With a Perspective, I'm Clyde Wadsworth.


Clyde Wadsworth is an attorney practicing business and civil rights law.