Iowa Supreme Court 2016-17 preview: Is it possible to guarantee racial balance on Iowa juries?

By: Rox Laird on February 13th, 2017

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says criminal defendants have the right to a jury made up of a cross-section of the community. Assembling a jury that precisely reflects a community’s racial makeup can be statistically challenging in a state with small percentages of racial minorities, however.

That mean the courts must make a greater effort to assure minority groups are fairly represented on juries, according to a criminal appeal to be heard Tuesday by the Iowa Supreme Court. (Go to On Brief’s Cases in the Pipeline page to read briefs in State v. Plain.)

Kelvin Plain Sr. appealed his harassment conviction in Black Hawk District Court on a number of grounds, including a challenge to the racial composition of the venire pool from which his jury was chosen.

Plain, who is black, objected to the fact that the venire pool of 56 eligible jurors included only one African-American – or 1.8 percent of the total, whereas blacks make up 9 percent of the population of Black Hawk County. None of the 23 potential jurors considered in voir dire for Plain’s jury was black.

The courts commonly use two measures for assessing acceptable racial composition of jury pools – absolute disparity or comparative disparity.

Absolute disparity is the difference between the percentage of members of a minority group in a jury pool and the percentage of that minority group in the community. In Plain’s case, the difference between 9 percent (the percentage of blacks in the county) and 1.8 percent (percentage of blacks on Plain’s jury pool) is 7.2 percentage points.

Comparative disparity is the percentage of eligible minority-group members in a jury pool compared to the minority group’s representation in the community. Plain’s jury pool was 1.8 percent black, which is 20 percent of the share of blacks in Black Hawk County.

The Iowa Supreme Court in a 1992 decision (State v. Jones) adopted the absolute disparity standard, following the lead of the U.S. Supreme Court, which has held that an absolute disparity of as much as 10 percent is sufficient to satisfy the jury cross-section requirement of the Sixth Amendment.

Plain urges the Iowa Supreme Court to overrule Jones and adopt the comparative disparity standard.

“In Black Hawk County,” he argues in a brief filed with the Court, “African-Americans will never be substantially underrepresented under an absolute disparity calculation because the maximum underrepresentation that could be found, if no African-Americans appeared on the list of eligible jurors, would be 9 percent. The same is true for virtually every county in Iowa.”

In response, the State argues in a brief filed by Attorney General Tom Miller that numerical representation of a minority group on a jury pool is only one factor weighed in such Sixth Amendment cases. In addition, the State argues, the courts look at whether there has been a “systematic exclusion of the [minority] group in the jury-selection process.”

Plain has not shown evidence of such systematic exclusion, the State argues, and it is not enough to prove “substantial underrepresentation” of one jury pool. “The nature of a randomly drawn jury panel ensures that some jury panels in Black Hawk County will contain more African-Americans, and some will have fewer African-Americans. That distribution, standing alone, does not establish any violation of the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a jury panel comprised of a fair cross-section of the community.”

Although state and federal appeals courts have wrestled with the issue of minority representation on juries for decades, some members of the Iowa Supreme Court may be receptive to wrestling with the subject again because of the disparity of African-Americans in Iowa’s prison population.

Plain points out that in 2014, African-Americans represented 3.4 percent of Iowa’s population but made up 26.2 of the state’s prison population. Members of the Iowa Supreme Court have expressed concern about that disparity in the past.

If this case “is not sufficient to satisfy the prima facie elements of systematic exclusion,” Plain argues, “then no case ever will.”

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On Brief is devoted to appellate litigation, with a focus on the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
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