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Years of patient and painstaking lobbying by the New York judiciary paid off Wednesday when both houses of the New York Legislature quietly voted to eliminate mandatory jury sequestration in all cases. Effective immediately, sequestration for all matters, including death penalty cases, will become the sole discretion of trial judges. Although the judiciary has long sought an end to mandatory sequestration, those efforts had generally been stymied by the court officers’ union, whose members received considerable overtime pay for guarding and otherwise attending to the needs of sequestered jurors. What finally brought the matter to fruition was an agreement to spend the approximately $1.5 million that had gone for sequestration-related overtime on enhanced security measures — in short, a guarantee of sorts that the court officers will not lose income as a result of the measure. “My heart is jumping with joy!” an elated Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye said Wednesday. “Today, I am standing in the shoes of a juror and dancing in the halls of the Court of Appeals.” Over the last several years, Chief Judge Kaye and Chief Administrative Judge Jonathan Lippman have carefully chipped away at the mandate while simultaneously building the foundation that led to Wednesday’s once-unlikely result. Until Wednesday, New York was the only state in the country with mandated sequestration. The federal courts also allow for discretionary, not mandatory, sequestration. In 1991, the New York Court of Appeals took a step toward loosening sequestration rules when it reversed the Appellate Division, 4th Department, and held in People v. Webb, 78 NY2d 337, that judges can send deliberating jurors home for the night if the defendant consents. Then, during the 1995 session, the Legislature eliminated mandatory sequestration in many cases, leaving it intact for all Class A felony and Class B and C violent felony matters, and inserting a March 31, 1997, sunset provision that essentially made the legislation experimental. Since then, the sunset date has been pushed off three times. Meanwhile, Chief Judge Kaye and Judge Lippman persistently pressed for a permanent end to mandatory sequestration, an effort that culminated in Wednesday’s action. “As a court person, I worry about the impact on jury service,” Kaye said. “As a human being, I worry about the inconvenience to people.” The judiciary built its case gradually and convincingly. In 1999, Judge Lippman reported that the experimental relaxation of sequestration standards had saved the state $3.5 million and spared approximately 14,000 jurors from the burden of being separated from their homes and family without compromising the integrity of deliberations. Also, the judiciary argued that sequestration tends to dilute the jury pool and adroitly pushed the right political buttons, focusing on the difficulties mandatory sequestration poses on single parents, young mothers, handicapped persons and members of various religious groups who for reasons of faith cannot be segregated during certain periods. With those arguments, convincing the executive and legislative branches was relatively easy. Winning over the Supreme Court Officers Association was another matter. Without the support of the union, the measure had virtually no chance to clear the Legislature. With its support, the bills passed unanimously in both houses. Under an agreement, the Office of Court Administration (OCA) will provide additional chores for court officers with the dual goal of increasing security afforded to jurors and maintaining the income levels of its employees. After the various constituencies came to terms, which almost occurred Tuesday night and finally occurred Wednesday morning, Judge Lippman lost no time getting the matter before the Legislature. With Lippman’s urging, Gov. George Pataki on Wednesday issued a message of necessity, which allowed the Legislature to vote on the issue even though the final bills had not been on lawmakers’ desks for three days, as required. In his message, the governor said an “immediate vote” on the bills (8937 in the Assembly and 5394 in the Senate) was “necessary to facilitate the jury deliberation process.” Both houses took action shortly thereafter on bills which had suddenly become noncontroversial. The legislation was immediately signed by Pataki. “In our minds, there was no public purpose ever served by mandatory sequestration,” Judge Lippman said. “It tore people away from their families for no good reason, it particularly discriminated against certain people who could not serve on juries and it called into question whether the jury was a cross-section of the community.” Lippman said the key stumbling block was the union’s overtime concern. “We understand each other that the money we spent on overtime … could be far better spent to enhance the security of the courts,” Lippman said. “I think there was a recognition that serving the public and protecting the interests of the [union] members are not mutually exclusive issues.” JUROR PROTECTION James T. Carr, president of the Supreme Court Officers Association, said the new security program will provide added protection for jurors, including perhaps escorts to buses or subways where necessary. “This is the first time the OCA and the union were able to agree to an enhanced security program, and that was the only way to resolve this,” Carr said. “I think this is the best way to go to meet the needs of the public and our members. I am delighted.” New York Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman James J. Lack, R-Suffolk, said Wednesday’s overdue action was the result of several years of negotiation and deliberation. “To sequester a jury is not only a cost to the state, but also an inconvenience that removes people from their homes and families,” Lack said. “If necessary, so be it. But if it is not necessary, why do it?” New York Assembly Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Helene E. Weinstein, D-Brooklyn, said the seven-year experiment has not resulted in any problems. “I think this is consistent with our effort to make jury service a more pleasant and less wearing experience,” Weinstein said. “The judge should make a decision of whether a jury should be sequestered. In the future, this will now be determined on a case-by-case basis.” A KEY GOAL Jury reform has been a key goal of Chief Judge Kaye’s administration since she first took office eight years ago — one of the major top-agenda matters, along with court restructuring. Kaye had previously succeeded in eliminating the automatic exemptions that shielded lawyers, doctors and others from jury service. She had also reduced terms of service and was instrumental in getting jury compensation increased to $40 a day. “This is important to me because I think the jury is so central to our justice system,” Kaye said. “It is important to me also because it is the one time that members of the public come into the courts themselves and see what the delivery of justice really means, what it really is. We should make it as meaningful, as efficient, as educational, as comfortable as we possibly can. This piece [elimination of mandatory sequestration] is tremendously important for its actual impact on jurors’ lives and for its perceived impact . … We’re not finished yet.”

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