- Associated Press - Thursday, December 15, 2016

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - The Kentucky Supreme Court ruled Thursday that judges don’t have authority to dismiss randomly selected jury panels for lack of racial diversity, weighing in on a case that sparked a legal feud and resulted in a Louisville judge’s suspension.

Its ruling stems from a decision by Jefferson Circuit Judge Olu Stevens to dismiss a nearly all-white jury panel in a 2014 case involving a black defendant. Prosecutors in Louisville asked the state’s high court to review the issue.

Writing for the court, Justice Daniel J. Venters said letting judges fix perceived flaws in a jury panel by dismissing all its members would be a “short-sighted” and “short-lived” policy. Different judges would have different ideas on what represents a fairly composed jury, he said.

“Without standards by which to judge the ‘proper’ composition of a jury, each trial judge would be left to apply his or her own individual criteria, discharging and replacing jury panels until a pleasing composition was attained,” he wrote. “The advantage of random selection would be lost; successive random draws until the desired result is achieved is not random.”

The case revolved around whether trial judges have the discretion to dismiss randomly selected jury panels that don’t represent “a fair cross section of the community,” even though jury selection rules were followed.

“No one would reasonably argue that a judge could properly strike a qualified individual juror from the … jury panel simply to make room for a different juror of another race or ethnicity,” Venters wrote in the court’s answer. “Outrage would be properly expressed if a trial judge said to a juror, ‘You are excused because you are white and I need to get a black person on the jury;’ or ‘You are excused because we have enough African-Americans on this panel and I need to have an Asian.’”

“That is, however, exactly what happened here, although it was done en masse rather than individually.”

For a time, that legal question was overshadowed by the feud that erupted between Stevens and Jefferson County Commonwealth’s Attorney Tom Wine. Stevens, who is black, turned to social media to express outrage at the white prosecutor’s request for the Supreme Court review of his decision to scrap the jury panel for lacking minorities.

Stevens wrote on Facebook that Wine’s request amounted to an attempt “to protect the right to impanel all-white juries.” Wine vehemently denied the charge. Stevens also suggested there was “something much more sinister,” and wrote that the prosecutor would “live in infamy.”

His posts ignited a debate about racial fairness, judicial impartiality and free speech for judges. It also got him into trouble.

A remorseful Stevens eventually accepted a 90-day suspension without pay in an agreement approved by the Kentucky Judicial Conduct Commission. Stevens, once dubbed “Judge Selfie” by a colleague for his prodigious use of social media - acknowledged he violated judicial canons and said his social media onslaught against the prosecutor was wrong. Wine accepted Stevens’ apology.

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