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Senate committee advances juror selection bill banning bias over sexual orientation

It would also prevent the use of marital status as a reason for eliminating potential jurors.

Sen. Scott Dibble asked, “Should it be all right to exclude someone from jury service on the basis of marital status or sexual orientation? I hope the answer to that is no.”
MinnPost file photo by James Nord

A key state lawmaker who has said he will carry legislation this session to legalize gay marriage moved forward with a measure on Tuesday that would prohibit excluding someone from jury service based on sexual orientation or marital status.

DFL Sen. Scott Dibble, a leader in last year’s successful fight to defeat the marriage amendment, proposed simple changes to current state law that would add “marital status” and “sexual orientation” to a list of characteristics that are prohibited from affecting whether someone is eligible for jury service.

His bill passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, with some Republican opposition, and is headed to that chamber’s floor. Dibble said the legislation hasn’t yet been introduced in the House.

The crux of the issue for Dibble came in the form of a question to skeptical GOP lawmakers on the committee.

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“Should it be all right to exclude someone from jury service on the basis of marital status or sexual orientation?” he asked. “I hope the answer to that is no.”

Republican Sens. Warren Limmer and Dan Hall asked whether such discrimination is an issue in Minnesota courts.

Janet Marshall, of the State Court Administrator’s Office, said she isn’t aware of cases of jury selection bias based on sexual orientation or marital status.

“I don’t see a problem happening with it, and if there’s no problem, why are we making bills?” Hall, who voted against the measure, asked after the committee hearing. “If there’s a concern, I understand, but it seems we have had no incidents in the past in Minnesota that we can see on marital status discrimination or discrimination on gays when it comes to jury duty, so why make a law about it?”

But Phil Duran, an attorney with OutFront Minnesota, a gay advocacy group, referenced a court case where a gay juror was excluded. He said Dibble’s plan would “cure a weakness in the statute so that we know that it doesn’t happen.”

Limmer also questioned whether the bill could be amended to serve as a vehicle for gay marriage legislation on the Senate floor, which Dibble said wasn’t his intention.

Dibble also said the measure wasn’t part of a specific menu of gay-equality issues that he means to tackle this session.

“This is an important step to take on a problem we can solve fairly easily,” Dibble said. “There are number of those large and small that affect our lives as LGBT folks and in other ways, too, but do I have a laundry list or an agenda of issues to bring forward? No.”

Hall, speaking for himself, also denied that opposition to gay marriage colored his disagreement with the bill.

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“With me no,” Hall said. “I don’t think anybody should be discriminated against because of their lifestyle.”