Court system seeking balance

By Ed Brock

Some 10,000 Clayton County residents received something in the mail recently they may have found confusing.

Especially since in some cases it wasn't in their native tongue.

The county's six-member jury commission and Clerk of Superior Court Linda Miller mailed out questionnaires to that number of Hispanic and Asian households to seek balance in the grand jury and traverse jury pools. At least they hope the recipients are Hispanic and Asian people since all they have to go on are the names.

"The drivers' license list (of prospective jurors) doesn't give race," Miller said.

The questionnaires are intended to confirm the race and sex of the people on the list. Using the information new jurors are summoned every week and given about one month's advance notice on when they should report, Miller said.

Miller said the jury commission wants to avoid controversies that have recently stalled proceedings in other courts because of a supposed lack of ethnic representation in the jury pool. Previously, the court primarily used voter registration rolls to pick jurors, but in 1999 the law changed to expand the jury pool by using the drivers' license list and other sources, Miller said.

The latest census figures showed that Hispanic people over 18 make up 7.1 percent of the county's population, Miller said.

"That's the next largest group under blacks and whites," Miller said.

Another 4.7 percent are Asian. Thus, they need 56 Asians, 86 Hispanics and 19 "others" to balance the grand jury box, Miller said. The traverse jury box needs 1,118 Asians, 1,714 Hispanics and 389 others to achieve balance.

"That's why we sent out 10,000, to try to get those kinds of numbers," Miller said.

The questionnaires were written in Spanish as well as English, but that didn't make them much easier to comprehend to many members of the Hispanic community. Around 45 have already contacted the Latin American Association's offices in Forest Park about the forms.

"The clients seemed really scared at the beginning," said Carmen Rojas-Rafter, director of the Forest Park office. "We were advising the clients to fill it out and called the clerk's office to verify why. The past few days it's been settling down."

Of course, many Hispanics won't qualify to sit on a jury because they aren't American citizens.

"I think it's a wonderful thing. I think a jury should be a jury of your peers," Rojas-Rafter said. "It's good that the court is making an effort."

The forms had an even bigger impact in the Vietnamese community.

"They're confused and they get scared. They say why, why did the court send this to me," said Mai Nguyen, a caseworker at the Trung Tam An Viet community center in Forest Park. "I don't know how many came in."

Nguyen said she hasn't called Miller's office yet but she plans to. She also said the number of concerned residents coming in to the center in the Ben Trong Kim Long Plaza on Jonesboro Road has slackened in the past week.

Miller said the commission wants to get the revisions finished by June 30.