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Local judge tackles racial makeup of juries

Local judge tackles racial makeup of juries, owatonna
Kay Fate, Staff Writer

An Owatonna judge is making news for ordering a change to the way juries are selected – a response to concerns that the people who sit in judgment don’t match the state’s diverse population.

Third Judicial District Chief Judge Joseph Bueltel, who is chambered in Owatonna and presides over cases in Steele County, signed the order July 18.

Though rarely used, Minnesota courts give chief judges or their designees the authority to order “appropriate corrective action” if improvement is needed in the representativeness of the jury source list or jury pool.

It’s the U.S. and Minnesota Constitutions, however, that Bueltel was following; they guarantee the right to a jury drawn from a fair cross-section of the community.

Bueltel’s order came after the Third District’s Committee for Equity and Justice (CEJ) asked for improvement in the inclusiveness of people on the jury source list and jury pools. The CEJ made six recommended changes:

  • Send summons and questionnaire twice to non-responding people.
  • Require the jury administrator to update the jury source list twice a year instead of once a year.
  • Require integration of the public assistance and unemployment compensation databases.
  • Require redraws of grossly unrepresentative jury panels until achieving proportional representation.
  • Order jury questionnaires and summonses sent in multiple languages, including Spanish and Somali, and plainly indicate that English proficiency is not a requirement of jury service.
  • Provide language interpreters to limited English proficiency jurors.

The order makes only a partial change to just one of the requests: Jury summons and questionnaire forms in the district must be translated into languages other than English and be made available to the public.

Translating those documents is simply in keeping with the way the state’s other executive branches operate, Bueltel wrote.

Minnesota’s Department of Human Services has translated forms in 15 languages. The Department of Public Safety’s Driver and Vehicle Services provides its driver’s manual in Spanish, Somali and Hmong.

The Department of Employment and Economic Development provides the unemployment insurance application in Spanish, Somali and Hmong. The DNR (Department of Natural Resources) translates and publishes its hunting and fishing regulations into Spanish, Somali, Hmong and Karen – and makes them available in print and online.

Bueltel also wrote that the summons form should be changed to clarify that all jurors should have “sufficient command of English to follow the trial, to understand the jury instructions and to discuss the case with other jurors.”

If they are unsure of their ability, potential jurors should come to court and raise the issue with the trial judge, he said.


In the letter from CEJ with the recommended changes, its members referred to the “glaring and long-standing racial disparities in the jury selection process,” adding that “an inclusive and representative jury pool is critical to preserving the right to a fair and impartial jury.”

Bueltel denied the other five requests in full; the order, he said, is “directed at increasing the representativeness of the district’s jury panels and increasing the rate of response from summoned jurors across the district.”

In addition to Steele County, the Third Judicial District includes Dodge, Fillmore, Freeborn, Houston, Mower, Olmsted, Rice, Wabasha, Waseca, and Winona counties.

Everyone registered to vote in Minnesota, all holders of a Minnesota driver’s license and all holders of a Minnesota state ID card are included in the jury source list.

Jurors self-identify their race and ethnicity on the juror questionnaire, sent to all summoned jurors. In the 2018-2019 period, 1.6% of pool jurors did not provide their race or ethnicity and are not included in these results. Thirteen percent of juries have at least one juror who did not provide their race or ethnicity; those juries are not included in the state’s results. Trial juries on civil and criminal cases are included in the statistics; each jury typically has either six or 12 sworn jurors.

While the jury selection process itself appears race neutral, racial disparities in the jury box remain.

There’s no disputing that Southeast Minnesota is overwhelmingly white.

According to 2018 Census Bureau estimates, Steele County is 89.7% white – but 95.2% of the seated jurors in 2018-19 were white.

Hispanics represent 5.9% of the population in Steele County yet accounted for only 2.4% of seated jurors.

The county has a Black/African American population of 2.4%, with just 0.4% representation in the jury box.

It’s unclear when Bueltel’s changes will be implemented.

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