Legislation introduced last week by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) seeks to bring nondiscrimination language to the court system, prohibiting the exclusion of individuals from serving on a federal jury because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
"The Jury ACCESS Act would move us one step closer to equality for every citizen," Shaheen said in statement. "The bill needs strong support of those committed to advancing equality."
Already the proposed legislation has received bipartisan support and sponsorship. Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island have both signed on as co-sponsors.
Last week, Collins also signed onto the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA), becoming the bill's first Senate Republican co-sponsor. The bill would grant binational same-sex couples the same immigration rights enjoyed by straight couples, including the ability for gay Americans to sponsor foreign partners for citizenship.
While many minorities are protected from discrimination during jury selection, LGBT Americans are not.
"We now have explicit protections in place to prevent striking jurors on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin and economic status," said Shaheen. "The question really is: how is it that in 2012 members of the LGBT community are not included on this list?"
The National LGBT Bar Association worked with Shaheen's office during the drafting process and applauded the bill's introduction last week.
"Extending federal jury non-discrimination policy to include sexual orientation and gender identity is truly a step forward for the LGBT movement and a notable achievement for the entire LGBT community," D'Arcy Kemnitz, executive director of National LGBT Bar Association, said in a statement. "We applaud the Senator's efforts for bringing equality to the forefront of the judicial process."
In May, The American Independent documented discrimination that persists against LGBT jurors. In one case in 2000, a California prosecutor asked that a potential juror not be selected for jury duty on the grounds of gender identity.
"I believe that people who are either transsexuals or transvestites — I don't know what the proper term is — traditionally are more liberal-minded thinking people, tend to associate more with the defendants because, obviously, they have been either ridiculed before or are feeling in a position of being in a microscope all the time and are outcasts which lends themselves to associating more with the defendant," said the prosecutor.
California has since passed a non-discrimination act for jury selection of their own. However, such discrimination would be illegal nationwide if the Jury ACCESS Act becomes law.
It remains to be seen what traction the bill, which has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, will receive in the weeks before the general election. Although Democrats, who have historically supported nondiscrimination bills, control the Senate, Republicans are hoping to secure a majority in the upper chamber this November. Republicans already control the House of Representatives.
The Obama administration has not indicated whether it supports the ban on jury discrimination.
[Photo: Jeanne Shaheen (Courtesy of the U.S. Senate).]