Batson v. Kentucky 476 U.S. 79 (1986)

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BATSON v. KENTUCKY 476 U.S. 79 (1986)

This decision made a major change in the law of jury discrimination. In swain v. alabama (1965) the Supreme Court had held that systematic exclusions of black people from criminal trial juries in a series of cases would be a prima facie showing of racial discrimination in violation of the equal protection clause of the fourteenth amendment. The Court said, however, that a prosecutor's use of peremptory challenges to keep all potential black jurors from serving in a particular case would not be such a showing. In Batson the Court, 7–2, overruled Swain on the latter point and set out standards for finding an equal protection violation based on a prosecutor's use of peremptory challenges in a single case.

In a Kentucky state court James Batson had been convicted of burglary and receipt of stolen goods. After the trial judge had ruled on challenges of potential jurors for cause, the prosecutor had used peremptory challenges—challenges that need not be justified by a showing of potential bias—to keep all four black members of the jury panel from serving on the trial jury. The Kentucky courts denied the defendant's claims that this use of peremptory challenges violated his Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury and his right to equal protection of the laws.

In reversing this decision, the Supreme Court's majority spoke through Justice lewis f. powell. The equal protection clause barred a prosecutor from challenging potential jurors solely on account of their race. Swain 's narrow evidentiary standard would allow deliberate racial discrimination to go unremedied. Accordingly, the majority ruled that a defendant establishes a prima facie case of racial discrimination by showing that the prosecutor has used peremptory challenges to keep potential jurors of the defendant's race from serving and that the circumstances raise an inference that the prosecutor did so on account of the defendant's race. If the trial court makes these findings, the burden shifts to the prosecution to offer a race-neutral explanation for the challenges. The judge must then decide whether the defendant has established purposeful discrimination. Plainly, Batson 's evidentiary standard leaves much to the trial judge's discretion.

Justice thurgood marshall concurred, but said he would hold all peremptory challenges unconstitutional because of their potential for discriminatory use. Justices byron r. white and sandra day o'connor concurred separately, stating that the new evidentiary standard should be applied only prospectively. Chief Justice warren e. burger dissented, stating that the longstanding practice of peremptory challenges served the state's interest in jury impartiality and arguing that such challenges were typically made for reasons that could not be articulated on nonarbitrary grounds. Justice william h. rehnquist also dissented, defending the legitimacy of peremptory challenges even when they are based on crude stereotypes.

Peremptory challenges have, indeed, long been based on group stereotypes. If the Supreme Court were to apply the standard to challenges of other groups, the law would be, in practice, much as Justice Marshall said it should be. Even if the new standard is limited to cases of racial discrimination, if trial judges apply it zealously, prosecutors will likely confine their challenges of potential black jurors in cases involving black defendants to challenges for cause.

In Holland v. Illinois (1990) the Court rejected, 5–4, a white defendant's claim that the prosecutor's use of peremptory challenges to keep blacks off the trial jury violated the Sixth Amendment right to a jury drawn from a fair cross-section of the community. A majority of the Justices, however, expressed the view that Batson 's equal protection principle, which in this case the defendant had not raised, would extend to such a case. That view became law in Powers v. Ohio (1991).

Kenneth L. Karst

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Batson v. Kentucky 476 U.S. 79 (1986)

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