A Senate committee voted 7-0 in favor of a bill to eliminate the "pick-a-pal" method judges use to select grand juries.
Grand juries—12 jurors and two alternates—hear evidence of alleged crimes and decide whether to issue indictments. Under current law, a judge can choose a group of three to five grand jury commissioners who are responsible for recruiting qualified candidates to become grand jurors. Judges also can call a jury pool to pick a grand jury in the same way litigants pick trial juries. Senate Bill 135—and its companion, House Bill 282—would do away with the commissioner system. Next, the full Senate might debate the bill.
The selection method is also known as the "key man" system, noted SB 135 author Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, during a March 10 public hearing before the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.
"This is the result of years of observation and involvement—working with judges and prosecutors and all the stakeholders. I understand why the pick-a-pal or commissioner system was established, but it's become apparent to many citizens: It appears to use the same people over and over on the grand juries," said Whitmire, who is also chairman of the committee.
Whitmire said the commissioner system has failed to seat grand juries that reflect the diversity of the communities they serve.
He told senators that he wanted to offer a substitute to SB 135 to make "technical corrections." That's what the committee passed.
Committee Substitute Senate Bill 135 adds a couple of new provisions to the introduced version. The new bill makes it clear that when a judge impanels a grand jury, the judge must "consider the county's demographics related to race, ethnicity, sex and age."
Under current law, a judge can only dismiss a grand juror because of his death or illness. CSSB 135 adds that a judge can dismiss a grand juror for "any other reason the court determines constitutes good cause."
Whitmire explained to senators, "It's a little reinforcement that the judge … can look at the panel and see the intention of diversity is maintained."
Judges' PerspectiveBelinda Hill, the first assistant district attorney in Harris County, said that throughout Texas, judges impanel trial juries in an open forum in which judges and lawyers question potential jurors about qualifications and their ability to render a fair and impartial verdict. The grand jury commissioner system is suspect in contrast, she said.
"I believe we are at a point in this state where perception matters. It is not only important our system of justice be fair and impartial and right, it is also important that it be perceived as fair and right," she said.
Hill, a former district judge, said she used to select grand juries via a jury pool. She found it easier because commissioners did not always suggest enough potential grand jurors, or didn't propose a group with enough diversity.
Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, also a former district judge, said she used a "hybrid system" to pick grand juries. She would call a jury pool, but also chose grand jurors from a list of people—retirees or those with "a real interest in the community"—who said they wanted to serve. Huffman said she hoped SB 135 wouldn't prohibit judges from picking such people for grand juries.
Senior Judge Bob Perkins of Austin, who served for 28 years, said he opposes Whitmire's bill. He said using the commissioner system assured that the grand juries he picked included a diversity of race and gender. It was more difficult to ensure diversity using the jury pool method because it was too hard finding people able to serve for such a long time.
"The law already requires that judges impanel grand juries which do reflect the makeup of their communities, so we already have a law on that subject. I don't know why we would have to fool around with the mechanics of it," said Perkins.