Jefferson County Circuit Judge Olu Stevens caused a stir recently when he dismissed a jury because it lacked racial diversity. It was the second time Stevens had done so.
After the first time, in November of last year, top prosecutor Tom Wine asked the Kentucky Supreme Court to issue an opinion on whether the judge was allowed to dismiss a jury panel based on race.
In response, Judge Stevens posted on his Facebook page that Wine was “advocating all-white juries.” So Wine asked the Chief Justice to disqualify Stevens from all criminal cases, saying the posts rendered him biased.
After a meeting with court-appointed mediators for several hours last weekend, Judge Stevens and Wine came to an agreement. Wine dropped his motion, allowing Stevens to remain on the bench.
The agreement notes that neither Judge Stevens nor Wine called the other a racist. Although, after reading Judge Stevens’ Facebook posts, one could easily surmise that there was an insinuation of racism.
Several law experts have said Judge Stevens crossed the line of ethical conduct with his Facebook posts, all while acknowledging his stance was important and worthy.
The case that started the firestorm had a jury panel of 41 people, 40 of which were white. The defendant in the case was black.
I applaud Judge Stevens for taking what to some in his profession may seem like an unpopular stand. He has a prominent position in our community, especially among minorities.
Nearly 23 percent of the people in our city are black. That means two out of every 12 jurors should be black for a jury to be representative. That should not be outside of the realm of reasonable expectations.
But race is not currently a determining factor in jury pools. It is a random draw of our citizens as a whole. And one problem is that blacks don’t participate in jury selections as much as our white neighbors do. That makes it difficult to have diverse juries.
Black men in our city, and our country as a whole, have an almost natural — and somewhat justified — fear of police, judges and the court system. So when the jury selection letter comes in the mail, it’s often treated like junk mail.
Judge Stevens was right to stand up and demand more diverse juries. He was wrong to accuse Wine of racism on Facebook. But unless more black citizens participate in the jury process, Judge Stevens’ point — that we all deserve juries truly of our peers — will end up being moot.
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