Monday, February 09, 2015

Harris DA backs eliminating 'key man' system for picking grand juries

It's impressive that Harris County DA Devon Anderson has announced her support for state Sen. John Whitmire's grand jury reform proposal to eliminate the key man system and select grand jurors from regular jury pools. Reported the Houston Chronicle (Feb. 8):
In a two-page Letter to the Editor of the Houston Chronicle on Sunday, she offered her full-throated support for changing the law on how grand juries are selected.

"The public is losing confidence in the grand jury system," Anderson wrote. "I support the efforts in the Texas Legislature to abolish the jury commissioner system."

Anderson, who called the current system "a historical anachronism," joins a chorus of calls for reform in the midst of fierce national debate over the diversity of the people picked to be grand jurors, an issue that has been spotlighted by several high-profile cases across the country.
Good for her! With the Republican DA of the state's largest county backing the idea, perhaps Whitmire's bill will find real legs. After all, he only has to get 19 votes in the senate now as opposed to 21 in years past. At a minimum, Anderson's position ensures opposition to the bill will be fragmented and vulnerable. I thought before this news hit that Whitmire's bill might find an untapped well of bipartisan support at the Lege. With a little luck, Anderson's vocal endorsement might put it over the top.

MORE: See more background on the topic in a link-filled post from Radley Balko published last August.


Anonymous said...

Once again, the tree is obstructing the view of the forest.

Per the article: "The use of jury commissioners to select grand jurors unnecessarily gives critics of the grand jury system ammunition to challenge the jurors' independence and integrity," - Devon Anderson

(Note the word "unnecessarily"...)

Sure, Anderson supports this move as it would then place ALL the power in her hands.

Devon Anderson knows only too well what can happen to a district attorney when others in the courthouse conspire against them:

Remember, it doesn't really matter who the grand jurors are as long as they are only allowed to see what the district attorney wants them to see.

If anyone honestly believes this small change will have any influence on the outcome, they are kidding themselves.

PS Devon, your tucking girdle is showing in the pic. Perhaps you should try a different method to hide your bulge:

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@10:05, one can't allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good. All else equal, regardless of who proposes it or your suppositions about their motives, do you think eliminating the pick-a-pal method and using petit jury rolls is an improvement over the status quo? IMO it is, therefore the bill deserves support. Does it solve every grand jury related issue? No. But neither does the idea deserve automatic derision.

Anonymous said...

Anyone who thinks eliminating the grand jury commissioner system will increase diversity in most Texas counties is likely to be sadly mistaken. If anything, I earnestly believe the opposite result will occur. Grits, you should really do an inquiry into jury duty appearance rate for minority jurors across the state. I'd be especially curious to know in Harris County how many jury summons are sent out for every juror that shows up? I would bet the ratio is at least 10:1 if not greater. Sure, in a county with a large minority population (like Harris County), you might get a decent cross section of the community if you send out a thousand jury summons (of course the county will have to pay for each of the potential jurors who actually bother to show up for at least one day). But in smaller or suburban counties? The problem is going to become compounded when you start asking these potential jurors to serve for 3 to 6 months or longer.

I appreciate Ms. Anderson's and Sen. Whitmire's good intentions here, but it seems to me that most of the grand jury problems in Texas have occurred in their county. Perhaps they should focus more on fixing their own grand jury problems rather than forcing a "once size fits all" solution on every other county in Texas. If ever there were a case where the law of unintended consequences might come into play, I'm afraid this will be it.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I didn't say it would increase "diversity," that's a red herring. I said it will reduce the control of crimjust insiders over the process. I think it will be harder to maintain diversity but the tradeoff in eliminating both the appearance of bias and actual bias generated by the pick-a-pal system is IMO worth it.

Of course, make me philosopher king and I might suggest getting rid of grand juries entirely. Or, if you're going to keep them, make recordings and/or transcripts public after their terms end. As presently constituted, I agree with Devon Anderson they're an anachronism when it comes to holding the government accountable.

Anonymous said...

You really think a randomly selected all white grand jury would mitigate the kind of social upheaval which might follow a Ferguson, MO type of case? I beg to differ.

In my experience, the notion of "control by crimjust insiders" over grand jury selection is what's really a red herring here. There will probably by outliers in just about any system you have, but I would sure venture to guess that the overwhelming majority of district judges across Texas who utilize the commissioner system go out of their way to make sure their grand juries are fairly comprised. Any evidence of "stacking" or favoritism could quickly open up every indictment returned by that grand jury to potential due process violation claims.

I think the contributor who wrote this recent piece on the Tribtalk section of the Texas Tribune website probably more accurately describes the real world of Texas grand juries. You should check it out if you've not already.