Pale Justice

In a '50s rerun, all-white grand juries return to Harris County

"It's very difficult generally to get people to serve on grand juries," laments Voigt. "We had at least one [minority] cited to appear, and that person did not appear. What can I do? I just can do the best I can, and that's all."

Former judge Jefferson points out that it's a relatively simple matter for judges to ensure that they have minority grand jurors. All they have to do, he stresses, is appoint a racially diverse group of commissioners.

"The judge handpicks his commissioners, and in handpicking his commissioners he picks a black person, a Hispanic person, woman or two," says Jefferson. "The key is to get the people as commissioners and they in turn select people who reflect them. And that's the way it's done. I've been a commissioner three times. We know what we're supposed to do and go about the business of doing it."

Carroll Robinson, the president of the Houston Lawyers Association, suggests that the lack of minorities in the judiciary is one big factor behind the return of the all-white grand jury.

Judges bring the experiences in the community and contacts and relationships they have developed, explains Robinson. "When there is lack of diversity, there is lack of that kind of background where you can reach out to a broad and diverse community."

Robinson suggests that the lack of minorities on the panels indicates some judges are not even conscious of the lack of diversity in their courtroom operations. If the judges' fields of friends, contacts and social circle are limited, argues Robinson, "it's natural they would have difficulty finding Hispanics, Asians, African-Americans."

Robinson, who is counsel to the Texas Democratic Party, also contends that the grand juries are a reflection of the party affiliation of the judges in question.

"The Republican Party is clearly of a notion that justice is now partisan," he says. According to Robinson, the GOP's attitude is: " 'Since we control the benches, we control the county, we're going to do it our way.' Anybody else's view has to hit the highway."

Wallace, for one, admits that his limited contacts with minorities is part of the problem. "I know this sounds hokey," says the judge, "and doesn't apply to somebody who runs in a different circle, but unfortunately in our society it's true, you know: white people know white people, black people know black people, Orientals know Orientals."

As far as finding people with the associations to produce qualified minority jurors, Wallace acknowledges, "I certainly suffer from not knowing enough of those people yet." But Wallace promises to do better. "Certainly, next time I'll be more certain it's going to happen. I regret it didn't this time, because I do understand how someone might perceive it's not fair representation, because they do bring something to the table that your suburban white would not think of."

Shaver says the new judges may suffer from limited minority contacts, but he figures they'll develop them with time.

"They may not have a lot of black associates or friends they have met," says the judge. "But after you've been here a while, you do start meeting more and more and becoming associated with a lot of people."

In any case, Shaver wants to make certain that the all-Caucasian grand jury does not return as a staple of Harris County justice. "It behooves the courts not to create an issue that doesn't need to be there," he says. "It's something we ought to take great care not to happen again.

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