Arizona lawmakers move to partially restore jury challenges

PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona lawmakers are advancing a proposal to partially undo the state Supreme Court’s groundbreaking elimination of the longstanding practice of allowing lawyers to remove potential trial jurors without explanation.

Proponents of the elimination of so-call peremptory challenges say it would help prevent discrimination in jury selection, but legislators supporting a bill endorsed Wednesday by the state House Judiciary Committee said its restoration of the challenges in criminal cases would preserve a right intended to help ensure just and fair verdicts.

"It’s how we’ve done things for ages and in my opinion is an essential part to our right to a trial by juries," said Rep. Jacqueline Parker, a Mesa Republican who sponsored the bill. "We’re not revolutionizing anything."″

The rule change approved last August by the state Supreme Court took effect Jan. 1, eliminating peremptory challenges in both civil and criminal cases. As amended by the committee, the bill would not restore peremptory challenges in civil cases.

With the elimination of peremptory challenges in criminal cases, prosecutors and defense lawyers can still ask judges to eliminate individual prospective jurors for bias or other "for cause" reasons.

Arizona was the first state to eliminate peremptory challenges, which are a hot-button legal issue nationally.

Chief Justice Robert Brutinel said in announcing the rule change that eliminating peremptory challenges was the latest in a series of moves by Arizona’s courts to improve the jury system and "will reduce the opportunity for misuse of the jury selection process and will improve jury participation and fairness."

The court’s lobbyist, Liana Garcia, defended the rule change during the committee hearing, saying juries often don’t reflect the makeup of communities. "It’s an inherent fairness issue."″

Mohave County Attorney Matt Smith supported the bill, telling the committee that eliminating peremptory challenges would result in more deadlocked juries by making it harder to weed out biased or unfair potential jurors.

"You’re going to lose a lot of confidence in the system," he said.

Rep. Domingo DeGrazia, a Tucson Democrat who voted against the bill, said the Legislature had limited time to study the complex issue and that it was better left to the Supreme Court.

"I disagree that the idea that we can do a better job with the information that we have than they did with the information that they have," DeGrazia said.

Parker, the bill’s sponsor, acknowledged that the Supreme Court has the constitutional authority to decide procedures for the court system, but she said restoring peremptory challenges falls under the Legislature’s policy-making role.

"We have a whole system in place so this is our job," she said.

Passage of the bill by the full House would send it to the Senate for consideration.

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