Machberes: Inside The Chassidish And Yeshivish World
By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
When an official-looking letter arrives in the mailbox, many fear that it is calling for them to attend jury duty. Many of us would prefer to run for the hills. Federal jurors are paid $40 a day. Jurors can receive up to $50 a day after serving ten days on a trial, but the majority of jury trials last less than a week. (Employees of the federal government are paid their regular salary in lieu of this fee.) Jurors are also reimbursed for reasonable transportation expenses and parking fees. Jurors also receive a subsistence allowance covering their meals and lodging if they are required to stay overnight.
Employers may continue paying salaries during all or part of jury service, but federal law does not require an employer to do so. Nonetheless, the Jury Act forbids any employer from firing, intimidating, or coercing any permanent employee because of their federal jury service. Many employers have a policy for employees serving on jury duty.
In New York State, a juror is paid $40 per day. Employers continuing to pay their employees while on jury duty ordinarily deduct the amount being paid by the courts. While in the courthouse, jurors may be unable to connect to the Internet, check with their office, or use their cellular phones to talk with their loved ones. If not assigned to a trial, they must sit for eight hours in a room full of strangers, with nowhere to stretch out and no way to heat up their own brown-bag lunch, not knowing until the very end of the day whether they are required to return the following day.
Many legal systems in the world do not have citizen juries. It is a very effective part of the American system of “checks and balances” that is the cornerstone of our freedoms. Sacrificing some time is generally one of the minor costs of our valued court protections and is one of the most important things we are called on to do, equal to or possibly greater than the privilege of voting for government officials.
“De Tzeitung News Report—the Yiddish Newspaper of Record” is published weekly in Boro Park and is considered the Yiddish intellectual newspaper of choice. Their thought-provoking editorials and opinion columns are carefully followed by many in Yiddish-speaking communities throughout the world. The opinion page is divided into three parts. The editorials are titled “What We Say,” op-ed columns are titled “What Others Say,” and the letters to the editor feature is titled “What You Say.”
A letter to the editor in the Friday, May 9, issue responded to an earlier article calling for observant Jews not to defer serving on juries. Thus, observant Jews, whether undergoing civil or criminal trials by jury, though representing a very small percentage of all defendants, would have a better chance of having a fair trial. Presently, a consensus in the legal community is that a fair trial for observant Jews, especially chassidim, is an impossibility.
In July 2013, during the Brooklyn criminal trial of an Orthodox Jew, a female juror publicly protested and disclosed that the jury was openly anti-Semitic and had agreed, in advance, that the defendant was guilty before any evidence was heard, let alone evaluated. The female juror was quoted as saying, “There was a lot of talk about the Jewish religion and one girl said it was a Jewish trial.” Because of that juror protesting, that jury did not find the defendant guilty.
Contrast the high rate of jury convictions of chassidim that were tried by jury in Brooklyn with the conviction rate in the Bronx of only 43% in jury trials there. In the Bronx, an accused has an almost three-in-five chance of being acquitted. On the other hand, being a chassidishe Jew appears to be a major drawback in Brooklyn courtrooms, especially if the plea is “not guilty.” Many leading criminal attorneys agree that a chassidishe Jew has no benefit-of-the-doubt with a general-population jury.
The letter writer questions whether chassidim reporting to jury duty will accomplish anything. The prosecutor, as well as the defense attorney, has the discretion to disqualify and send away three jurors from the jury pool. Of course, the prosecutor will disqualify any chassidim when a defendant is chassidish. Further, the letter writer feels, chassidim are accepted as being smart, and prosecutors, at trials of non-chassidim, would prefer that their jurors be susceptible to their courtroom dramatics. Assuming that the chassidishe population, especially of jurors, will not achieve more than three chassidim available to override the three juror disqualification option, nothing will have been gained.
The editor, responding in detail to the letter, notes that in spite of the three-juror disqualification option, the prosecutor or defense attorney must explain the reason for disqualifying any juror. No juror can be disqualified because of religion, race, or sex. Judges will not tolerate any juror being dismissed because he or she is chassidish, something that automatically constitute grounds for appeal. If chassidim constitute a respectable number of jury pools, chassidim will be included on juries.
The editor agrees that the number of observant Jewish defendants is minuscule percentage-wise. The overwhelming majority of defendants on trial for violent crimes will see that chassidim do participate on juries and will be disinclined to perpetrate crimes against them, knowing that chassidim will participate in deliberating charges against them. Chassidim on juries would win the respect of other jurors, as well as of judges and court officials.
The actual number of chassidim on individual juries is secondary to what can be achieved. Even one juror can influence an entire jury. In most jury trials, it is one or two jurors who can lead and convince the other members of the jury to correctly evaluate and understand evidence and come to a correct assessment to either convict or acquit a defendant. v
Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum is the rav of B’nai Israel of Linden Heights in Boro Park and director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.