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Batson v. Kentucky
[476 U.S. 79]
Burger Court,  Decided 7-2,  4/30/1986
Read the actual decision


Chief Justice Warren BurgerBatson doesn't collect a lot of cites today, but it probably should. On an ordinary plane, it was a simple test of discrimination and trial by jury. On a deeper level -- that involved with actually defining and enforcing the decision -- it brought Affirmative Action into the jury room.

Although it is probably too soon to understand the long-term effects of Batson -- the Court does change its mind occasionally (!) -- subsequent cases have tended to confirm and enlarge upon its findings.

It is normal in a jury trial for each side -- prosecution and defense -- to have the right to excuse a certain number of jurors, during the selection process, for whatever reasons they feel help their case. It's an unfortunate fact that most defense attorneys do not want educated professionals, and certainly law-enforcement professionals, sitting on their juries. Most prosecutors would like to have as few potentially sympathetic types as possible deciding the case. The concept accepts that, with both sides having the same right, an impartial jury -- albeit moldable by the attorneys -- will be impaneled.

In Batson, a case involving charges of burglary and receipt of stolen goods, the attorneys for both sides exercised their right to the peremptory challenge of jurors, and removed six for the prosecution, nine for the defense. When it was noted that the prosecution had removed all four black panelists, the defendant, who was also black, alleged that the action violated his Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment rights, which should have guaranteed a jury drawn from a cross-section of the community.

Failing to have his charges dismissed in lower courts, the defendant moved to the U.S. Supreme Court, which found in his favor.

In it's decision, from which Justices Burger and Rehnquist dissented, the Court essentially removed the right of peremptory challenge, and replaced it with something more akin to challenge for cause, without defining the standard that would be applied. In doing so, it tried to fool everyone by stating that the decision would "not undermine the contribution that the challenge makes to the administrations of justice."

In fact it does just the opposite, by applying a racial test to any juror challenge, and permitting any challenge to be litigated should it remove a juror of the same race as the defendant. In so doing, it applied racial quotas to jury trials.

The Batson decision confuses jury representativeness with jury impartiality, the latter being crucial to our system of justice. To this, Justice Thurgood Marshall freely admitted that he found representativeness in a jury to be more important than impartiality, and hoped that this decision would mark the end of the traditional peremptory challenge. (It's difficult to believe that a Supreme Court Justice would find a trait more important than impartiality in a jury. We must assume from the remark that he assigns to "representativeness" a definite partiality in a direction which he favors.)

In its original form, Batson was limited. It applied only to the prosecution, only to criminal cases, and only to challenges wherein the excused juror was of the same race as the defendant. Predictably, the limits began to expand almost immediately. In 1991, Edmonson v. Leesville Concrete extended the concept to civil cases and, by logical extrapolation, to defense attorneys. Another case the same year, Powers v. Ohio included white defendants in cases where black jurors had been dropped. Predictions are that the concepts of Batson will soon be (if they haven't already been) extended to gender.

Unless it is reversed or seriously revised, Batson will continue to expand, and to send the message that Americans, by and large, are incapable of impartially weighing facts and law unless carefully combed by race, gender, and who knows what else. If justice is blind, then juries must be first and foremost impartial, able to comprehend the facts, and respectful of the law.


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Other decisions pertaining to Affirmative Action:

United Steel Workers of America v. Weber    [443 U.S. 193 (1979)]  Burger Court
University of California v. Bakke    [438 U.S. 265 (1978)]  Burger Court

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