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Madison - Potential jurors must be randomly summoned for duty, Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen reasoned today in a formal opinion. In response to a request for a legal opinion from A. John Voelker, Director of State Courts, Van Hollen concluded that Wisconsin law does not permit a jury selection system that gives some persons a greater (and other persons a lesser) opportunity to be summoned, depending on the area of the county where they live. Voelker's request was precipitated by a suggestion made to the courts in Milwaukee County as to whether courts could use a jury selection method designed to increase the number of jurors from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups by "oversummoning" jurors from certain geographic areas to offset the higher rates of undeliverable summonses, unreturned questionnaires, and jurors who fail to appear from those areas.


As detailed in the opinion, the Wisconsin statutes governing the selection of juries expressly provide that all persons selected for jury service shall be selected at random from the population of the area served by the circuit court. Statutes and case law provides that all qualified persons shall have an equal opportunity to be considered for jury service. Van Hollen noted that the clear intent of these statutes is to guarantee that all qualified citizens have the opportunity and the obligation to serve as jurors by obtaining jurors on the basis of objective qualifications, selected at random from a broad cross-section of the community, so that there will be no discriminatory practices in the jury selection process.


Van Hollen's opinion holds that deliberately summoning a greater number of potential jurors from some geographic areas would not comply with the Wisconsin statutes, which require random selection and provide that the method of selecting potential jurors must provide each qualified person with an equal probability of selection for jury service. While increasing the proportional representation of minority groups on juries might be a desirable goal, Van Hollen warned that it cannot be accomplished by means that conflict with statutes designed to guarantee equality of individual, not group, participation on juries.


Van Hollen advised Voelker that if greater representation of minorities on juries is sought, it must be by means that maintain a non-discriminatory random selection procedure.


The formal opinion is the third issued this year by Attorney General Van Hollen, and the seventh formal opinion issued since he took office on January 1, 2007. Opinions of the Attorney General provide guidance about the meaning and application of Wisconsin law, and are often requested where Wisconsin appellate courts have not definitively answered a question or to address legal questions that are unlikely to be resolved in the course of judicial proceedings. Though Wisconsin courts do not have any obligation to follow an interpretation provided by a formal opinion of the Attorney General, they often will. As the Wisconsin Court of Appeals has written, "Well-reasoned attorney general's opinions have persuasive value when a court later addresses the meaning of the same statute."


A copy of the formal opinion released today and the opinion request can be found here.