Beth Fertig is WNYC’s Contributing Editor for Education. She previously covered politics, which included City Hall during the Giuliani administration, and the U.S. Senate campaigns of Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton. She also covered transportation and infrastructure.
Gays Protest Jury Duty Over Lack of Equality
Friday, March 11, 2011
It appears that gays protesting for equal rights have a new message: that they can't serve as impartial jurors when called to serve.
I was called to jury duty in Manhattan State Supreme Court on Thursday. On two separate occasions, I heard gay men tell a judge during the voir dire process that they didn't think they could fairly serve on a jury.
The first occurred in the morning session. When asked if he could be an impartial juror, the man stated that he wasn't given full civil rights by the legal system. Judge Laura Ward looked stunned. She repeated her question and again the man said he honestly didn't feel he could be impartial because gays are denied certain rights such as marriage. The judge told him everyone is treated equally in her courtroom. When he objected again she excused him from the case but told him he'd be called back on other cases.
In other words, his jury duty wasn't over.
Later that afternoon, while screening jurors for the same criminal case, another man told Ward he couldn't be impartial because he is gay. He mentioned that he's been in a relationship for 18 years with the same man, but that they still can't get legally married. He was excused from the case.
It's not clear if the two protests were related or if they were in response to anything in particular. But last week, a 26-year-old actor named Jonathan Lovitz used very similar language when he told a different Manhattan judge that he didn't think he could be an impartial juror. Lovitz wrote about his experience on Facebook and it's since gone viral over social media.
When contacted by WNYC, Lovitz said he had never been much of a political activist. But he said he was reading about gay marriage on his Blackberry while waiting to be called for a jury on March 1 in a Manhattan civil court. When the judge started asking people if they could be fair and impartial, he said he answered, "I can't possibly be an impartial judge of a citizen when I am considered a second class one in the eyes of this justice system."
He added, "It just struck a chord with me."
Lovitz said he was very nervous and saw some people smile approvingly while others rolled their eyes. He was excused from the case and gave the same answer the next day when called back for a different case. He insists he wasn't just trying to get out of jury duty.
"It's another example of civil disobedience which we're all taught to respect and admire from the day we're in elementary school civics classes," he said, referring to the American Revolution and the Civil Rights marches.
Lovitz said he's received hundreds of messages through Facebook and has been contacted by various web sites and news outlets. He says most people are supportive but a few said he's chosen a "frivolous" form of protest and he's responded by suggesting they pick another way to demonstrate against not being treated equally. But he hopes his form of protest takes off as more gays and lesbians object to jury duty. He wants lawmakers to see they're going to lose a "significant portion of their jury pool" if laws such as those against same-sex marriage don't change.
"States are going to realize that if they don't integrate LGBT citizens into the same laws that apply to everyone else, civil disobedience will only begin with jury duty," he said.
Meanwhile, the movement hasn't caught on too broadly yet. Two gay rights groups contacted by WNYC said they aren't encouraging people to protest jury duty.
A spokesman for the New York State Office of Court Administration, David Bookstaver, said he never heard of anyone objecting to jury duty as a protest for gay marriage.
"Each juror is interviewed independently and as to a juror being excused, that's up to the judge," he said. "No one is exempt from jury duty."