Alameda County again proposes misdemeanor jury rule change previously halted by public outcry; critics charge it will reduce jury diversity

OAKLAND — Two years after public outcry stopped a near-identical proposal in its tracks, the Alameda County Superior Court system is trying to change the way misdemeanor jury service works by allowing potential jurors to be called to any courthouse regardless of where they live.
Previously, potential jurors in misdemeanor trials were called to the closest courthouse to their home, but the potential rule change would allow the courts to call them to any of the three main misdemeanor courthouses in Oakland, Fremont, and Dublin, regardless of their city of residence. Critics contend that this will place an undue burden on low-income jurors who may not be able to find transport, childcare, or other accommodations to travel several cities over for jury duty.
Proponents of the change point out that felony trial systems have worked this way for years, and during the COVID-19 pandemic the misdemeanor trial change has been implemented on a temporary basis. The proposal would make the emergency rule permanent.
“The result is we’re going to go back to a time where black people who are accused of crimes are judge by predominantly white jurors,” said Alameda County public defender Brendon Woods. He compared an Oakland resident having to “walk a few blocks” an Oakland courthouse versus having to take a bus or other public transport to Fremont or Dublin, during the pandemic.
“It just would not occur,” Woods said, adding that if it did, the court would be more likely to excuse low-income potential jurors who need to travel farther distances to get to court.
In 2018, the county court system dropped a similar proposal after receiving hundreds of public comments opposed to the rule. Court Executive Officer Chad Finke told this news organization at the time the proposal garnered the most public interest he’d ever seen. Similarly, a proposal to make the change permanent last September also failed.
The subtext of the issue — juror diversity in race and income status — is an oft-talked about but scarcely studied phenomenon in Alameda County. The last prominent study, conducted more than 10 years ago by the American Civil Liberties Union, found the county “suffers from systemic underrepresentation of African-American and Latino jurors in its jury pools.”
Other than that, there is anecdotal evidence; Woods, for instance, penned an editorial last year saying Black men and women are routinely excused from juries at disproportional rates. And Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley has been named as an advisor to a work group organized by the California Supreme Court to address “impermissible discrimination in jury selection.”
Anyone who wishes to comment on the proposed rule change can email pcomments@alameda.courts.ca.gov. The public defender’s office has also set up a site to streamline the public comment process, hoping to organize opposition: https://www.acgov.org/defender/oppose.htm. To read the entire text of the proposal, visit: www.alameda.courts.ca.gov/Pages.aspx/Public-Notices

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