Judge Disqualified from Criminal Cases Over Social Media Comments
A Superior Court judge in Louisville, Kentucky, has gained attention from the media and state prosecutorial offices over his public comments on the racial makeup of juries. Judge Olu Stevens, a Jefferson County judge, first stirred controversy in the legal community of Louisville in November of 2014, when he dismissed a jury chosen for a criminal trial of an African-American man that did not include any African-American jurors. Similarly, in October of this year, Judge Stevens dismissed an entire panel of potential jurors for, according to him, failing to be representative of the community due to having too few African-American members. Both the defense attorney and prosecutor objected to this decision.
Jefferson County Commonwealth Attorney Tom Wine, with the support of Kentucky’s Attorney General, filed a motion with the Supreme Court of Kentucky requesting clarification on whether a judge is legally permitted to dismiss a panel of jurors due to the racial makeup of that panel. Judge Stevens expressed frustration on social media over the motion, writing that insisting on the right to all-white juries “is not where we need to be in 2015,” and stating that Wine’s claim to “entitlement to an all-white jury panel” would cause him to “live in infamy.”
With this escalation, Wine began requesting that Stevens recuse himself on each case where the Commonwealth office was before him (i.e., every criminal prosecution), arguing that Stevens showed through these comments that he could not be impartial. Stevens refused, and Wine again approached the Kentucky Supreme Court requesting that Stevens be removed specifically from two criminal trials that were going forward, as well as future criminal matters. Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice John Minton sided with Wine, removing Stevens from the two trials on the basis that Wine had “demonstrated disqualifying circumstances.” After further back and forth via interviews in local news media and posts on social media, the two men engaged in mediation, resulting in an agreement which was approved by Chief Justice Minton and resulted in Stevens being restored to the bench on criminal matters. The men expressed the mutual belief that the other is not a racist, and an intent to keep working toward improved representation of racial minorities on local juries.
Jury composition and representation of minorities has long been a hot topic in Kentucky, after numerous criminal defendants of color have expressed objection to the fact that their jury was composed only of white members. According to local research, while the Jefferson County population is about 21% African-American, only 14% of eligible jurors are African-American. A group of local attorneys, judges, and community members belonging to the Racial Fairness Commission, formed in 2001, have long been examining the issue. Both Stevens and Wine are members of the commission.
This issue is not confined to Kentucky by any means. Last November the U.S. Supreme Court debated the issue of racial bias in jury selection in a Georgia criminal case in Foster v. Chatman. And just last year a piece in the Chicago Reader highlighted several Cook County criminal prosecutions of black individuals before all-white juries. Clearly, racial issues in a criminal case can extend from questions of racial profiling in an arrest all the way to jury selection in trial, and vigilance at every stage is essential to protecting the constitutional rights of the accused.
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