Summary of a Fourteenth Amendment Landmark Case: Batson v. Kentucky 476 U.S. 79 (1986)
When selecting a jury, both parties may remove potential jurors using an unlimited number of challenges for cause (e.g., stated reasons such as bias) and a limited number of peremptory challenges (i.e., do not need to state a reason).
In the case Batson v. Kentucky, Batson, the defendant, was an African American man convicted of burglary and receipt of stolen goods in a Louisville, Kentucky court by a jury composed entirely of white jurors. The key part of his appeal was based on the jury selection (also Known as voir dire) phase of the trial. During void dire potential jurors are examined by the Court, the prosecution, and the defense, to determine their competence, willingness, and suitability to hear, deliberate and decide a case put to them to render a verdict. During this phase, the judge can dismiss jurors and both the prosecution and the defense have a limited number of peremptory challenges.
In Batson’s case, the judge dismissed several potential jurors for various causes. The defense peremptorily challenged nine potential jurors and the prosecutor peremptorily challenged six, including all four black people. A jury composed of only white persons was selected. The defense counsel moved to discharge the whole jury on the ground that the prosecutor’s removal of the black veniremen violated the defendant’s rights under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to a jury drawn from a cross-section of the community, and under the Fourteenth Amendment to equal protection of the laws. The jury ultimately convicted the defendant.
The defendant appealed his conviction to the Kentucky Supreme Court, which affirmed the conviction. Batson continued his appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which granted certiorari to decide whether defendant was tried in violation of constitutional provisions guaranteeing the defendant an impartial jury and a jury composed of persons representing a fair cross-section of the community.
Whether the use of peremptory challenges to remove a potential juror from the jury pool based on race violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution?
Ruling of Batson v. Kentucky:
(Powell, J.): In a 7–2 decision, the Court held that, while a defendant is not entitled to have a jury completely or partially composed of people of his own race, the state is not permitted to use its peremptory challenges to automatically exclude potential members of the jury because of their race. “The Equal Protection Clause guarantees the defendant that the state will not exclude members of his race from the jury venire on account of race or on the false assumption that members of his race as a group are not qualified to serve as jurors.”
“The harm from discriminatory jury selection extends beyond that inflicted on the defendant and the excluded juror to touch the entire community. Selection procedures that purposefully exclude black persons from juries undermine public confidence in the fairness of our system of justice.”
A defendant in a criminal case can make an Equal Protection claim based on the discriminatory use of peremptory challenges at a defendant’s trial. Once the defendant makes a showing that race was the reason potential jurors were excluded, the burden shifts to the state to come forward with a race-neutral explanation for the exclusion.
(White, J.) Justice White wrote that although the Court’s prior precedent should have warned prosecutors that using peremptory challenges to exclude people based solely on race violates the Equal Protection Clause, the widespread practice of discriminatory elimination of jurors justifies the opportunity to inquire into the basis of the peremptory challenge.
(Marshall, J.) Justice Thurgood Marshall agreed with the decision in the case, but asserted that the Court should eliminate the use of peremptory challenges in all criminal proceedings so that they could not be used as a front for impermissible racial considerations. Justice Marshall asserted that under the current system, prosecutors are still free to discriminate so long as it is not blatant, and trial courts face a difficult burden of assessing a prosecutor’s motive.
(Stevens, J) Justice Stevens asserted that the Equal Protection claim was properly before the Court even though it was not initially presented by the petitioner because the party defending the judgment expressly relied on the issue as a basis for affirming the state court decision.
(O’Connor, J) Justice O’Connor wrote to agree that the rule announced does not apply retroactively.
(Burger, C.J.) Chief Justice Warren Burger noted that the Equal Protection Clause issue should not have been decided because the petitioner did not properly raise that type of challenge. The Chief Justice also noted that reargument and further briefing on the issue should have been ordered given the importance and tradition of peremptory challenges in the legal system. Peremptory challenges had a long history in both England and America before the Revolution, and the purpose of peremptory challenges was to allow elimination of a particular juror without reason. The Chief Justice also noted that the Court did not apply the conventional Equal Protection Clause framework to the claims before it because the state’s interest in preserving peremptory challenges might be so compelling as to allow the types of challenges that happened in this case. In sum, the Chief Justice asserted that “[a]n institution like the peremptory challenge that is part of the fabric of our jury system should not be casually cast aside, especially on a basis not raised or argued by the petitioner.”
It is worth mentioning that in 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to revisit this issue in Foster v. Humphrey.
Elizabeth Bagert Carpenter is a New Orleans Criminal Attorney who practices in both State and Federal Courts.