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Studdard has role in statewide jury reform

Special Photo
Henry County Chief State Court Judge Ben Studdard (far right) worked with a committee to change how jury lists are compiled. Pictured are: Michael Cuccaro (from left) and Billie Bolton, State Administrative Office of the Courts; State Rep. Alex Atwood; Robert Keller, State Board of Pardons and Paroles; Gov. Nathan Deal; Patty Baker, Clerk of Courts, Cherokee County.

Special Photo Henry County Chief State Court Judge Ben Studdard (far right) worked with a committee to change how jury lists are compiled. Pictured are: Michael Cuccaro (from left) and Billie Bolton, State Administrative Office of the Courts; State Rep. Alex Atwood; Robert Keller, State Board of Pardons and Paroles; Gov. Nathan Deal; Patty Baker, Clerk of Courts, Cherokee County.

By Elaine Rackley

erackley@henryherald.com

A Henry County State Court judge's efforts helped produce a jury-selection law, designed to more easily balance the racial, gender and ethnic makeup of juries in Georgia.

"The United States Constitution guarantees everyone the right to a jury made up of a fair cross-section of the community," said Judge Ben Studdard. "A jury list has to be a representation of the community."

Studdard served as a member of the State Supreme Court's Jury Composition Committee, which drafted the Jury Reform Act of 2011.

The act enables courts to use current technology to compile a more diverse list of prospective jurors, using more than just voter registration- and driver's-license lists. Also, under the act, the jury-pool list will be updated every year, rather than every two years.

"He [Studdard] was an invaluable member of the process of moving us from the old days, into the new days," said Georgia Supreme Court Justice Hugh Thompson, chairman of the committee. He appointed Studdard to the body.

"He's a great and smart judge ...," said Thompson. "He possessed all of the qualities necessary to consider and help implement an all-inclusive jury system."

Past challenges to Georgia's jury pools led to the new law.

"I helped to draft the legislation," said Studdard. "Before that, we had to design a system we thought would work. We studied the way the other states do it. We hired researchers to test it out, and it took years to make sure we got it just right."

According to federal law, in every county, the local clerk of court's jury box should contain the same percentage of black and white, male and female, residents, as existed in the last 10-year census, explained Studdard.

He acknowledged there have been two major problems with the existing process of how jurors were selected. One is that the demographics have changed from county to county in the last decade. The other is that forced balancing of the jury box was difficult to achieve.

"To get the right percentage, you actually excluded people if their demographic group is over-represented on the master list," explained Studdard. The names in the jury box were from a voter registration list, and the driver's license list. However, "in many counties, there are very few, if any names off the driver's license list, most of the names come from the voter's list," he said.

"We discovered, over the last several years, Georgia was no longer just black and white, yet the rules only talk about black and white," said Studdard.

In 2005, the jury list was challenged in Clayton County, because it was based on the 2000 census. "The population had changed, the black population had risen 17 percent," Studdard said. "But the rule said you go with the 10-year census. They were stuck with that, even if it's 10 years out of date."

A jury-selection list also was challenged in Hall County, during a 2002 murder case, because it did not include Hispanics. It was the catalyst which led to the formation of the Supreme Court Jury Composition Committee, according to Studdard.

Currently, the jury list is updated every two years. Jury summons were being sent to people who had died, or no longer lived in the county. The judge described the practice as costly.

"Every court I know, including ours, has about a 50-percent response rate of jurors," continued Studdard. "The new [way of compiling a jury list] will be cheaper to produce, more accurate, and more constitutional. I believe the new system is going to allow us to create the best jury list this state has ever seen."

Rep. Alex Atwood (R-Brunswick) and Sen. Bill Cowsert (R-Athens) sponsored the legislation, which was signed into law by Gov. Nathan Deal on May 3. The new law will go into effect May 3, 2012.

"Judge Studdard was one of the original people interested in jury reform," said Justice Thompson. "He and Richmond County Superior Court Judge Carlisle Overstreet, from Augusta, and Marla Moore, director of the Georgia Administrative Office of the Courts, convened a jury summit in August, 2002."

Georgia remained the only state in the union to force balance jury boxes, to match census population figures, said Thompson. All of the other states were putting their entire jury-eligible population into their jury pool, and were selecting juries from the entire jury-eligible population, as opposed to a smaller number of eligible people, he said.

"The way we have been doing that in Georgia, with the change of our demographics, had become cumbersome and expensive," said Court Administrator Moore. "We needed a more efficient and effective way to develop a jury pool."