Wednesday, February 08, 2006

AD4: City Court defendants not entitled to jury panel comprised solely of city residents

In re Oglesby v McKinney, __ AD3d __ [available here]

A criminal defendant standing trial in Syracuse City Court was provided a panel of prospective jurors "comprised of eligible residents of Onondaga County." (In re Oglesby, __ AD3d at __.) The defendant moved to strike the panel, "contending that he was entitled to a panel drawn solely from available jurors residing in the City of Syracuse." (Id. at __.) Defendant relied on section 500 of the Judiciary Law, which provides a criminal defendant in New York with the "right to grand and petit juries selected at random from a fair cross-section of the community in the county or other governmental subdivision wherein the court convenes [...]." (Judiciary Law 500.) The City Court judge agreed and struck the panel. The Onondaga County District Attorney--apparently uncomfortable with the idea of trying a city court case in front of a jury selected solely from city residents--commenced an Article 78 proceeding in Supreme Court, "seeking to prohibit [the City Court judge] from enforcing his order [...]." (Id. at __.) The Supreme Court granted the writ, and the case came before the Fourth Department on the City Court Judge's appeal.

The Fourth Department (in a decision written by Justice Gorski) converted the Article 78 proceeding to a declaratory judgment action, and came down in favor of the District Attorney, essentially because of the "or" connector in section 500 of the Judiciary Law; from Justice Gorski's decision:

By its express terms, Judiciary Law section 500 permits, in the alternative, the random selection of jurors from "the county or other governmental subdivision wherein the court convenes", but the statute does not mandate the selection of jurors from one jurisdiction to the exclusion of the other. [...] There presently is no mandate in Judiciary Law section 500 that a county commissioner of jurors provide a defendant in a criminal action in city court with a panel of prospective jurors comprised solely of residents of the city. Legislative action would be required for the imposition of such a mandate.

(Id. at __.)

I'm not sure I agree with this decision, only because a fair reading of section 500 of the Judiciary Law seems to contemplate a court's jurisdiction fitting its prospective jury pool--residents of a Town are the proper pool for Town Court cases, city residents are the pool for City Court cases, and County and Supreme Courts draw from a county-wide pool. This would seem to me to be the only real way to make the "fair cross-section" language a reality. Nevertheless, Justice Gorski's decision is based on a tight reading of the statute and not necessarily unreasonable.

What bothers me more is the fact that the Onondaga County District Court felt compelled to file an Article 78 proceeding to prevent the jury from being comprised solely of Syracuse city residents, i.e. more minorities than would be present in jury pool drawn from the county. In other words, the Onondaga County District Attorney does not want minorities sitting as jurors, and was willing to engage in protracted litigation (on the public dime) to make sure there are as few minorities in the city court jury pool as possible. Regardless of the legal merits, why should the District Attorney care if a city court jury is actually made up of city residents?