Why the George Zimmerman Trial's All-Female Jury Is News

History is the reason a single-gender jury is possible, but the state legislature is the reason it's more likely in Florida. How should citizens feel about it?
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George Zimmerman's defense team confers with him during the final stages of jury selection for his trial in Seminole circuit court in Sanford, Florida Thursday, June 20, 2013. (Gary W. Green/Reuters)

"An all-women jury"! So read the headlines announcing the end of jury selection for the latest murder trial to obsess the nation. Six women will decide whether George Zimmerman acted in self-defense in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. But, what does it say that the "all women jury" was the lead story?

As a legal matter, it means little. The Constitution only guarantees a fair cross section of the community in the jury venire (meaning the entire jury pool). Since both men and women were in the larger jury selection group, the ultimate composition of the final jury of all women does not raise any constitutional concerns. Further, because there was no allegation that men were excluded during preemptory challenges (the lawyer's discretionary choices to strike potential jurors) there exists no gender-based objection to the final jury.

But, as a statement about the image of the jury today, an all-female jury means something significant. First, it shows just how far juries have come in embracing the promise of equality: Today, an all-female jury is possible, and we are surprised by it--because we are unused to such a demographically skewed jury, and expect juries to look roughly representative of the American population at large.

Full gender equality in jury service is a rather recent accomplishment. By law, women were disqualified from serving as jurors in almost every state until the latter part of the twentieth century. Florida, the location of the Zimmerman trial, only removed exclusions in 1967. While certain states allowed women to serve on juries before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment--Utah, Washington, Kansas, Nevada, California, and Michigan--most states did not. It was not until 1975 in Taylor v. Louisiana that the Supreme Court struck down the last remaining state exclusionary policy keeping women from equal participation. As late as 1957, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and West Virginia simply barred women from serving on juries altogether.

The fact that an "all women" jury was newsworthy - even surprising news - says something about our expectations of what a representative jury should look like. We expect equal representation of gender, race, and class or a close approximation. That we expect this reality in the face of a history of jury discrimination against women and people of color again is a tribute to the progress made toward equality in jury service. Today, jury service remains one of the few experiences that transcends gender, race, and class boundaries present in much of society. So, an all-female jury confounds our expectations, not because it is all women but because it is not as diverse as we would expect.

Presented by

Andrew Guthrie Ferguson is an assistant professor of law at the UDC David A. Clarke School of Law, and author of Why Jury Duty Matters: A Citizen’s Guide to Constitutional Action (NYU Press 2013). 

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