Tuesday, January 21, 2014
Ninth Circuit Extends Batson's Equal Protection Doctrine Regarding Juror Exclusion to Sexual Orientation and Applies "Heightened" Scrutiny
In its opinion today in SmithKline Beecham Corporation (GSK) v. Abbott Laboratories, a unanimous panel of the Ninth Circuit extended the equal protection rule and analysis of Batson v. Kentucky (1986) regarding juror exclusions to those based on sexual orientation.
The underlying dispute between the pharmaceutical companies involved HIV medications and during jury selection the attorneys for Abbott Laboratories "used its first peremptory strike against the only self-identified gay member of the venire." The attorneys for GSK sought to initiate a Batson inquiry on the basis of sexual orientation. The Batson analysis first requires a "prima facie" case of intentional discrimination, after which the striking party must offer a neutral reason for the strike, and then, third and last, the court makes a determination whether there has been an equal protection violation.
The district judge allowed the preemptory strike although said she would "reconsider her ruling if Abbott struck other gay men." While the judge advised Abbott's attorney that “it might be the better part of valor” to reveal the basis for his strike, counsel "replied that he would rely on the grounds given by the judge and further explained, 'I don’t think any of the challenge applies. I have no idea whether he is gay or not.'" Apparently he later "added that he could not have engaged in intentional discrimination because this was only his first strike." After a four week trial, the jury returned a "mixed verdict."
In the opinion authored by Judge Reinhardt, the Ninth Circuit held that there was a "prima facie" sufficient to have triggered the Batson inquiry, and using the record before it, then engaged in the second prong of the Batson analysis, finding that Abbott's counsel did not provide a sufficient explanation.
As to the third prong, the Ninth Circuit panel noted that generally attorneys may "exercise their peremptory challenges to remove from the venire any group or class of individuals normally subject to ‘rational basis’ review." It then stated: "Thus, if sexual orientation is subject to rational basis review, Abbott’s strike does not require reversal."
Judge Reinhardt's opinion for the panel concluded that sexual orientation receives "heightened scrutiny" under equal protection. The opinion turned to "the Supreme Court’s most recent case on the relationship between equal protection and classifications based on sexual orientation": United States v. Windsor (2013), holding that Windsor was "dispositive of the question of the appropriate level of scrutiny in this case," even as the Court's majority opinion in Windsor "did not expressly announce the level of scrutiny it applied to the equal protection claim at issue." Judge Reinhardt correctly noted that the Court in Windsor did not apply a presumption of constitutionality or supply reasons for Congressional action in DOMA.
Windsor scrutiny “requires something more than traditional rational basis review.” Windsor requires that when state action discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation, we must examine its actual purposes and carefully consider the resulting inequality to ensure that our most fundamental institutions neither send nor reinforce messages of stigma or second-class status. In short, Windsor requires heightened scrutiny.
Thus, the Ninth Circuit's previous precedent applying rational basis to sexual orientation classifications was no longer valid. Applying this heightened scrutiny, the Ninth Circuit found that the peremptory challenge was unconstitutional:
permitting a strike based on sexual orientation would send the false message that gays and lesbians could not be trusted to reason fairly on issues of great import to the community or the nation. Strikes based on preconceived notions of the identities, preferences, and biases of gays and lesbians reinforce and perpetuate these stereotypes.
In sum, the Ninth Circuit's extended Batson to sexual orientation classifications and used the term "heightened scrutiny" to comply with the doctrine that Batson did not apply to classifications that merited rational basis scrutiny.
However, one might be reading too much into the opinion to conclude that the Ninth Circuit has ruled that sexual orientation classifications now merit heightened scrutiny akin to "intermediate scrutiny." Indeed, the Ninth Circuit relies upon the United States Supreme Court's opinion in Windsor which it admits is less than clear about the level of scrutiny - - - and certainly much less clear than the Second Circuit's opinion in Windsor which determined and applied the intermediate level of equal protection scrutiny used in gender/sex classifications.
Instead, it seems that the Ninth Circuit read the "rational basis" exclusion from Batson to be the "mere" rationality test - - - often called the "anything goes" rational basis of Railway Express Agency v. New York (1949) (which the Ninth Circuit panel opinion did not cite) or Fed. Commc’n Comm’n v. Beach Commc’n, Inc. (1993) (which the Ninth Circuit did cite and quote). The "heightened scrutiny" that the Ninth Circuit finds - - - derived from Windsor - - - is akin to the "heightened rational basis" or "rational basis with bite" or "rational basis with teeth" that has become a common feature of equal protection doctrine for sexual orientation classifications. While the Ninth Circuit opinion does not stress "animus," it does discuss Department of Agriculture v. Moreno (1973), including stating that the Ninth Circuit previously "acknowledged that Moreno applied “‘heightened’ scrutiny.”
Certainly, this is an important opinion: it extends Batson to sexual orientation classifications. And it is also important to the litigation between two giant pharmaceutical corporations given that the case was remanded for a new trial. However, it is not a landmark opinion that substantively changes (rather than clarifies or renames) the level of scrutiny for sexual orientation classifications in all equal protection cases.