Batson v. Kentucky 1986

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Batson v. Kentucky 1986

Petitioner: James Kirkland Batson

Respondent: State of Kentucky

Petitioner's Claim: That by striking African Americans from his jury, the prosecutor violated his constitutional rights.

Chief Lawyer for Petitioner: J. David Niehaus

Chief Lawyer for Respondent: Rickie L. Pearson, Assistant Attorney General of Kentucky

Justices for the Court: Harry A. Blackmun, William J. Brennan, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Sandra Day O'Connor, Lewis F. Powell, Jr., John Paul Stevens, Byron R. White

Justices Dissenting: Warren E. Burger, William H. Rehnquist

Date of Decision: April 30, 1986

Decision: The Supreme Court sent Batson's case back to the trial court to determine whether the prosecutor had race-neutral reasons for striking African Americans from the jury.

Significance: With Batson, the Supreme Court said striking jurors because of their race violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives every American the right to be tried by an impartial jury when accused of a crime. An impartial jury is one that is fair, neutral, and open-minded. The use of impartial juries allow defendants to be judged fairly by their peers from the community.

Selecting a jury for a case is a two-stage process. In the first stage, the court creates a large pool of people from the community to serve as jurors. This pool is called a venire. In the second stage, the court and lawyers select twelve people from the venire to be the jury for a specific case. During this stage the lawyers for both parties get to make jury challenges. A jury challenge allows the parties to exclude specific people from the jury.

There are two kinds of jury challenges. A challenge "for cause" happens when a party has a good reason to believe a potential juror might not be able to decide a case fairly. For example, if a potential juror is the defendant's brother, the prosecutor can use a for cause challenge to prevent the brother from serving on the jury. There is no limit to the number of for cause challenges a party can make during jury selection.

The second kind of challenge is called a peremptory challenge. Each party gets a limited number of peremptory challenges. They allow the parties to exclude potential jurors who the lawyers feel will be against their cases. Traditionally, a lawyer could use peremptory challenges without giving a good reason. All he needed was a hunch that a potential juror would rule against his client. Peremptory challenges were one way for defendants to make sure they got an impartial jury.

Jury of His White Peers

In 1981, James Kirkland Batson stood trial in Jefferson county, Kentucky, on charges of second-degree burglary and receipt of stolen goods. Batson was an African American. During jury selection, the prosecutor used his peremptory challenges to strike the only four African Americans from the jury venire. The resulting jury had only white people.

Batson made a motion to dismiss the jury and get a new one. (When a party makes a motion, he asks the court to do something.) Batson argued that the prosecutor violated his right to an impartial jury by eliminating African Americans. Batson also argued that using peremptory challenges to get rid of jurors based on race violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Equal Protection Clause says states may not discriminate against citizens because of race.

The trial court denied Batson's motion and the jury convicted him on both counts. Batson appealed to the Supreme Court of Kentucky, but it affirmed his conviction. As his last resort, Batson took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. There he got help from the Legal Defense and Education Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Discrimination Disallowed

With a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Batson. Writing for the Court, Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr., said dismissing African American jurors because of their race suggests that African Americans are incapable of being jurors or deciding a case fairly. The Supreme Court could not allow prosecutors to reinforce such ignorant, old-fashioned ideas.

The Equal Protection Clause prevents Kentucky and all states from discriminating against races of people. When a prosecutor uses a peremptory challenge to strike an African American from a jury, he hurts the defendant, the potential juror, and society. The defendant loses the right to have a jury free from discrimination. The potential juror loses the right to serve on a jury. Society loses confidence in the fairness of the criminal justice system.

The Supreme Court sent Batson's case back to the trial court in Kentucky. That court had to determine whether the prosecutor had race-neutral reasons for striking the four African Americans from the jury. If not, the court would have to reverse Batson's conviction.

Justice Thurgood Marshall filed a concurring opinion, which means he agreed with the Court's decision. Justice Marshall said, however, that he would go one step further by eliminating peremptory challenges entirely. He thought it would be too difficult to determine whether a prosecutor used a peremptory challenge for a race-neutral reason. Marshall said the only way to get rid of the evil of discrimination is to get rid of peremptory challenges.


I n March 1931, Clarence Norris and eight other African American boys were indicted in Scottsboro, Alabama, for raping two white girls. The case of the Scottsboro boys drew national attention. Locals bent on revenge were determined to see the nine boys convicted. Evidence of the boys' innocence, however, led people around the work, including scientist Albert Einstein, to sign a petition requesting Alabama to release the boys.

Alabama rejected the petition and tried the Scottsboro boys in court. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the first trial because Alabama failed to appoint a good lawyer for the boys. Clarence Norris was convicted and sentenced to death in a second trial. Norris appealed the conviction because the grand jury that indicted him and the jury that convicted him had no African Americans.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed Norris's second conviction. If found that Morgan and Jackson counties in Alabama, where Norris was indicted and tried, regularly excluded African Americans from jury service. There even was evidence that local authorities were tampering with jury lists to make it look like they were considering African Americans for jury service when in fact they were not. The evidence proved that in a generation, no African Americans had served on a grand or petit jury in Morgan and Jackson counties. For that reason, Norris deserved a new trial.

Leaving Long Traditions Behind

Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and Justice William H Rehnquist filed dissenting opinions, which means they disagreed with the Court's decision. Burger and Rehnquist said peremptory challenges were one of the most important parts of America's criminal justice system. They stated very frankly that people tend to favor other people of their own race, religion, age, and ethnicity. Peremptory challenges make sure such favoritism does not affect a jury's decision. Making prosecutors use these challenges for race-neutral reasons would force them to keep biased people on juries.


Batson only applied to prosecutors in criminal cases. Eventually, however, the courts extended the decision to civil cases, which are between individual citizens. Eight years later in J.E.B. v. Alabama (1994), the Supreme Court said lawyers may not use peremptory challenges to exclude jurors based on their sex either. As of 1999, however, the Court has declined to prevent religious discrimination in the selection of jurors.

Suggestions for further reading

Guinther, John. The Jury in America. New York: Facts on File Publications, 1988.

Mikula, Mark, and L. Mpho Mabunda, eds. Great American Court Cases. Detroit: The Gale Group, 1999.

Summer, Lila E. The American Heritage History of the Bill of Rights: The Seventh Amendment. New Jersey: Silver Burdett Press, Inc., 1991.

Wolf, Robert V. The Jury System. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1999.

Zerman, Melvyn Bernard. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt: Inside the American Jury System. New York: Crowell, 1981.

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Batson v. Kentucky 1986

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