NEW YORK – The New York Civil Liberties Union and the law firm Clarick Gueron Reisbaum (CGR) today filed a class-action lawsuit in Manhattan challenging the permanent exclusion of people with felony convictions from serving on juries. Decades of racialized policing targeting Black residents of Manhattan has saddled them with felony convictions resulting in the mass disenfranchisement of Black people — especially Black men — from the jury pool. The lawsuit asserts the ban violates the United States Constitution.
“Restoring the right of people with felony convictions to serve on juries is a racial justice imperative,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “Jury disenfranchisement not only shuts thousands of Black Manhattan residents out of civic engagement, but it strips people of their right to be judged by a jury of their peers. A jury system that underrepresents Black New Yorkers is one that ultimately sends more Black New Yorkers to jail, and it’s one that needs to be overhauled.”
A long history of racialized policing and prosecution targeting Black people combined with this jury ban has left Black people significantly underrepresented in the population from which all of Manhattan’s civil and criminal juries are drawn:
- Approximately 25 percent (38,000) of Manhattan’s Black residents who would otherwise be eligible to serve on a jury are disqualified.
- The effect is even worse on Black men, likely more than 40 percent of whom are disqualified from jury service in Manhattan due to a felony conviction.
One of the two plaintiffs in today’s lawsuit is Daudi Justin, a Black man and resident of Harlem, who is disqualified from jury service due to a felony conviction. In 2009, Mr. Justin was convicted of a drug possession felony that today is only classified as a misdemeanor. Now a public defender, Mr. Justin represents clients before the very courts that bar him from serving as a juror.
“For far too long in this country, felon jury exclusion has been used to systematically deny black people the opportunity to fully participate in the democratic process. Even when people have completed their sentences, the legal system puts up barriers that relegate us to second-class citizenship,” said Mr. Justin. “The consequence of this exclusion is the complete lack of diversity of race and experience on the typical jury panel, which is not just a denial of a right to a fair trial for individuals accused of crimes, but it is also a denial of the right to participate fully in the democratic process for individuals with felony convictions who have already completed their sentence. Each juror brings a unique perspective and that should include the informed perspective of people who have experienced the criminal legal system firsthand.”
The other plaintiff is the Community Service Society of New York, a nonprofit organization whose mission includes supporting individuals with conviction histories to overcome barriers to civic participation, employment, and housing.
“The felony ban on jury service is part of a decades-long fixation on excluding people of color from full participation in American life,” said David R. Jones, President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York. “A person is not tried by a jury of their peers when nearly one million people with felony convictions in New York State are banned from even being considered for jury service. This lawsuit seeks long overdue relief that will restore a fundamental right of citizenship.”
Although racialized policing and prosecution are common in New York, Manhattan has consistently exhibited the largest disparities in felony convictions between Black and white people of any county in the state:
- Between 2002 and 2019, Black people in Manhattan were convicted of felonies at a rate more than 21 times greater than white people.
- Although studies show relatively small differences in rates of drug usage and sales by race and gender, in Manhattan between 2013 and 2019, Black men were convicted of felony drug offenses at a rate 130.1 times greater than white women.
“Just as the ballot box helps ensure that elected officials are accountable to the people, the jury box holds the courts similarly accountable. The suppression of jury diversity undermines public confidence in the justice system,” said Perry Grossman, director of the Voting Rights Project at the New York Civil Liberties Union and lead counsel for the plaintiffs. “The permanent ban on jury eligibility for people with felony convictions compounds the effects of decades of racialized policing and prosecution — trapping more Black New Yorkers in prison and diluting their influence over the administration of justice.”
“CGR is proud to represent Mr. Justin and CSS in their effort to bring greater fairness to jury trials in Manhattan and to end a racially-discriminatory practice that needlessly undermines the dignity and long-term success of returning citizens,” said Isaac Zaur, a partner at Clarick Gueron Reisbaum. “Working toward a safer, fairer, and more prosperous city means welcoming and encouraging people with conviction histories into civic participation, not excluding them from fundamental political activities.”
Currently, the only way for people with felony convictions to apply for restoration of their jury eligibility is through a process that is intrusive, burdensome, and subject to judicial discretion. Few New Yorkers with felony convictions ever see their jury service rights restored.
In conjunction with today’s lawsuit, the NYCLU is also engaged in a statewide education and advocacy campaign on the civil consequences of criminal convictions in New York and their disproportionate impact on communities of color. Through workshops, community engagement, and coalition building, NYCLU staff, volunteers, and supporters are working in our communities to ensure New Yorkers with felony convictions know their rights.
The lawsuit, Justin v. Tingling, was filed today in the federal district court in Manhattan.
You can find case materials here: https://www.nyclu.org/en/cases/justin-v-tingling