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Batson v. Kentucky

Batson v. Kentucky, , was a case in which the United States Supreme Court ruled that a prosecutor's use of peremptory challenge—the dismissal of jurors without stating a valid cause for doing so—may not be used to exclude jurors based solely on their race. The Court ruled that this practice violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.


The petitioner, James Kirkland Batson, was an African American man convicted of burglary and receipt of stolen goods in a Louisville, Kentucky circuit court by a jury composed entirely of white jurors. The key part of the appeal was based on the jury selection, or voir dire phase of the trial. During this phase potential jurors are examined to determine their competence and suitability and, in this particular case, the judge dismissed several potential jurors for various causes. During voir dire, both the prosecution and defense also often have a certain limited number of peremptory challenges, which can be used to excuse any juror for any reason which the particular side believes will help their case.

In the case at issue, the defense peremptorily challenged nine potential jurors and the prosecutor, Joe Gutmann, peremptorily challenged six, including all four black persons, and a jury composed only of white persons was selected. The defense counsel moved to discharge the jury on the ground that the prosecutor's removal of the black veniremen violated petitioner'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. Without expressly ruling on petitioner's request for a hearing, the trial judge denied the motion, and the jury ultimately convicted the defendant.

The defendant appealed the conviction to the Kentucky Supreme Court, who affirmed the conviction. That court cited Swain v. Alabama, 380 U.S. 202 (1965) and held that a defendant alleging lack of a fair cross section must demonstrate systematic exclusion of a group of jurors from the panel of prospective jurors. Batson continued his appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Certiorari was granted to decide whether petitioner 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."

The court's decision

In a 7–2 decision authored by Justice Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr. the court ruled in favor of the petitioner. The case overruled Swain v. Alabama by lowering the burden of proof that a defendant must show in order to make a prima facie case (which does not require proof or reasoning) of purposeful discrimination.

In Swain, the court recognized that a "State's purposeful or deliberate denial to Negroes on account of race of participation as jurors in the administration of justice violates the Equal Protection Clause". But they ruled that the defendant had the burden of proving a systematic striking of black jurors throughout the county, that is, that the peremptory challenge system as a whole was being perverted. In Batson the court ruled that the defendant could make a prima facie case for purposeful racial discrimination in jury selection by relying on the record only in his own case. They explain further:

The defendant first must show that he is a member of a cognizable racial group, and that the prosecutor has exercised peremptory challenges to remove from the venire [jury pool] members of the defendant's race. The defendant may also rely on the fact that peremptory challenges constitute a jury selection practice that permits those to discriminate who are of a mind to discriminate. Finally, the defendant must show that such facts and any other relevant circumstances raise an inference that the prosecutor used peremptory challenges to exclude the veniremen from the petit jury on account of their race. Once the defendant makes a prima facie showing, the burden shifts to the State to come forward with a neutral explanation for challenging black jurors.

The decision also held the following:

  • a State denies a black defendant equal protection when it puts him on trial before a jury from which members of his race have been purposely excluded;
  • A defendant has no right to a petit jury composed in whole or in part of persons of his own race. However, 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; and
  • the peremptory challenge occupies an important position in trial procedures.

The decision of the court was not retroactive This meant that people convicted prior to the Batson decision by juries whose racial composition was influenced by peremptory challenges not consistent with this opinion could not appeal on the grounds outlined in the opinion.

Marshall's concurring opinion

In his concurring opinion, Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote that "the decision today will not end the racial discrimination that peremptories inject into the jury-selection process. That goal can be accomplished only by eliminating peremptory challenges entirely." His opinion went on to call for that elimination where he wrote that, "the inherent potential of peremptory challenges to distort the jury process by permitting the exclusion of jurors on racial grounds should ideally lead the Court to ban them entirely from the criminal justice system".

Burger's dissenting opinion

In his dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Warren Burger argued that the court's decision in Batson effectively did away with the peremptory challenge, "a procedure which has been part of the common law for many centuries and part of our jury system for nearly 200 years". The peremptory challenge, he believed, was largely ended and replaced with something very similar to challenge for cause:

The effect of the Court's decision, however, will be to force the defendant to come forward and 'articulate a neutral explanation' for his peremptory challenge, a burden he probably cannot meet. This example demonstrates that today's holding will produce juries that the parties do not believe are truly impartial. This will surely do more than 'disconcert' litigants; it will diminish confidence in the jury system.

Batson in modern law

Since it has become such an oft-used tactic, the term "Batson challenge" has come to mean the act of claiming, based on this decision, that a trial should be invalidated on the basis of peremptory challenges having excluded a cognizable group from the jury. The Batson decision was in reference to jury selection in criminal trials, but the court later extended the same rule to civil trials in Edmonson v. Leesville Concrete Company.

Batson's authority has recently been reinforced in a pair of 2005 decisions, Miller-El v. Dretke, 545 U.S. 231 (2005) and Johnson v. California, 545 U.S. 162 (2005).

The idea of Batson challenges also extends to sex-based peremptory challenges. See J.E.B. v. Alabama ex rel. T.B., .

Although the issue has yet to come before a federal court, in state courts, Batson has been applied to discriminatory use of peremptory strikes against judges. For example, in Superior Court v. Williams, 8 Cal. App. 4th 688, defense counsel objected to the prosecution’s motion to disqualify an African-American judge, suspecting that the motion was racially motivated. The Court noted that Batson’s use of Equal Protection to combat racially discriminatory strikes against jurors was well established, and that subsequent decisions had extended these protections in other contexts. The Court held that “these principles are equally applicable to race-based challenges to judges.”

Subsequent history of the case

When the Supreme Court reversed his conviction, James Kirkland Batson was serving a 20 year sentence from the case. Rather than risk a retrial, Batson pled guilty to burglary and received a five year prison sentence. After that sentence, Batson continued to get in trouble with the law, being convicted of several offenses including burglary, theft, receiving stolen property and being a persistent felony offender. He was released from prison again in January 2003 and will remain on parole through 2026.

Joe Gutmann, the prosecutor in Batson's 1982 trial, has said that the Supreme Court's decision was "a good one" because it prevents lawyers from discriminating in jury selection. Gutmann now teaches government and history at inner-city Louisville Central High School. He has said he removed the black members of the venire not because of their race but because they were young and might sympathize with Batson.

Batson is now a construction worker in Louisville, Kentucky and says of the media attention regarding the famous case that bears his name, "It's so old, they ought to let it go."

See also

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