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Kansas judges back off effort to keep jurors’ names secret

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas judges are backing off an effort to shield jurors’ names in a compromise with transparency advocates who hope to avoid court secrecy.

The Kansas District Judges Association will still seek to keep jurors’ addresses secret under its compromise with the Kansas Press Association, District Judge James Fleetwood and state Rep. Blaine Finch said.

Transparency advocates had warned that the original effort was part of what they see as a growing trend across the U.S. toward anonymous juries. Kansas judges said they want to protect jurors from harassment and stop a “chilling effect” potential jurors’ feel when they have to disclose their information for the public record.

States where courts don’t have to release jurors’ names include California, Indiana and Oklahoma. Lawmakers in Virginia also tried to shield jurors’ identities this year, according to Daniel Bevarly, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, but the bill was amended so names and addresses would still be available, while other information could be secret.

The Kansas judges group reached the deal with the media organization after versions of their original proposal unanimously passed both the House and Senate. The changes the Kansas Press Association wants are expected to be made in conference committee before the bill gets final legislative approval.

The Kansas Press Association hadn’t initially opposed the original bill because the group didn’t realize it would keep jurors’ names secret, said Executive Director Doug Anstaett.

Fleetwood said shielding jurors’ addresses but not their names would still present a hurdle to anyone trying to harass or intimidate jury members.

Gregg Leslie, legal defense director for the Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press, said protecting jurors’ identities can be necessary in specific trials, but that’s handled better on a case-by-case basis. Shielding juror identity, he said, makes it harder for members of the press or public to hold the judicial system accountable and ensure jurors make fair decisions. And while jurors’ right to privacy may be important, he said, they’re serving a public duty.

“It’s an incredible power we give jurors to determine the state of the freedom we give another individual,” Leslie said.

But state Sen. David Haley, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said jurors shouldn’t have to waive their right to privacy when they’re called for mandatory jury service.

District Judge Cheryl Rios said she couldn’t determine how frequently jurors are harassed or how often they’re unwilling to serve for fear of harassment. But she said it’s an issue members of the Kansas District Judges Association had discussed and thought to be a growing problem.

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