A Defendant’s Rights | “The Batson Challenge”

One of the foundations of our judicial system is the guarantee by the sixth and fourteenth amendments which provide that a defendant is guaranteed certain rights as promised by both amendments. Both provide that a defendant be given a jury which is compromised from a cross section of the community and that a defendant be given equal protection. The paradox to this can be found in the jury selection process where a lawyer can exclude a potential juror during the jury selection process without even giving a reason, known as a “Peremptory Challenge.”  The Question then becomes, if a lawyer is allowed to exclude a juror without giving any reason, how do we know that he is not acting contrary to the sixth and fourteenth amendments?

While there will never be a definitive answer to the above question, there are a couple of cases that highlight the apparent paradox. In Batson v. Kentucky, defendant James Batson challenged his case all the way to the United States Supreme Court, stating that his constitutional rights were violated (Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986). His claim was that the defense in using their peremptory challenges, excluded all 4 black jurors from the jury leaving an all-white jury to decide his fate. He argued that he was not given jurors from a cross section of his community and that it would be impossible for the jury to be impartial. He also argued that the peremptory challenges which were allowed, violated his fourteenth amendment rights of equal protection. The Supreme Court in this case, sided with the defendant stating that a lawyer is not permitted to use a peremptory challenge to exclude a juror solely on race. The court held that purposely excluding jurors based on race undermines the public trust in the judicial system.

From this landmark ruling came to what has now been referred to as the “Batson Challenge.” A defendant can now challenge the use of a peremptory challenge if it’s being used to exclude a juror based on race and sometimes if it’s being used to exclude a juror based on other factors such as a juror’s sexual orientation. For example, in SmithKline v. Abbott, there was an appeal to challenge a peremptory challenge of a juror based on his sexual identity Smithkline Beecham Corp. v. Abbott Labs., 740 F.3d 471 (9th Cir. 2014). The Ninth Circuit court ruled that it was unconstitutional to bar a juror because of his sexual orientation. Id.

It is still important to note however, that Batson v. Kentucky mentioned an important factor when deciding that a peremptory challenge based on race is unconstitutional: Namely, that there must be proof that this was indeed the reason as to why the attorney chose to use his peremptory challenge.  For example, if there was a different reason other than race as to why the peremptory challenge was used, then it would not be considered unconstitutional.

In conclusion, Batson is still the standard that most courts use to today when deciding whether or not a peremptory challenge is unconstitutional. In Batson, the courts stated a hybrid model: If the defendant can establish a prima facie case of a racial bias in a peremptory challenge, then the burden shifts to the prosecutor to explain his reason as to why he made the exclusion of the juror. This has modified, somewhat, the definition of a peremptory challenge as before Batson, no reason had to be given as to the use of a peremptory challenge. Now, when challenged with a prima facie explanation, there must be reason and logic to the use of the challenge and why it is still within the realm of the defendants sixth and fourteenth amendments.

About the Author
Yoel Ackerman is a blogger and content writer at several media outlets, including the Lakewood Scoop and The Times of Israel. He also works as a Paralegal and is currently pursuing a degree in law. His content often includes the news of the day, from a legal perspective.
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