Thursday, May 26, 2016
The Supreme Court this week in Foster v. Chatman (14-8349, decided May 23,2016) reversed a Georgia murder conviction because the prosecutors violated the requirement of Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986) that lawyers not use race-based peremptory challenges to remove jurors. The Court, in an exquisitely detailed factual analysis by Chief Justice Roberts, dissected the prosecutors' purported reasons for challenging two prospective African-American jurors and found them disingenuous.
In a Slate article, my friend and colleague, the prolific and invaluable Prof. Bennett Gershman ("How Prosecutors Get Rid of Black Jurors," May 26,2016) writes that, notwithstanding Batson and now Foster, prosecutors will continue to "remove black persons from jury service with impunity simply by concocting purportedly race-neutral reasons." He points out that the Foster reversal occurred only because of the random discovery of the prosecutors' file containing telltale notations and comments about their intentions to strike black jurors.
I agree with Prof. Gershman. Prosecutors will continue to use race as a basis, sometimes the predominant or even only basis, in their determinations which jurors to challenge. And, so will defense lawyers. Given the limited knowledge lawyers have about the predelictions and potential biases of jurors, especially in jurisdictions which prohibit or severely limit lawyer questioning of jurors. a juror's's race is perceived by trial lawyers, reasonably I believe (although not to my knowledge based on any scientific proof), as an indication of how he will vote in the jury room, just as how he will vote in the voting booth.
As Prof. Gershman states with respect to prosecutors (generally applicable also to defense lawyers), "Prosecutors have long believed that striking black jurors improves their chances of convicting a black defendant. Prosecutors assume that black people are more likely than white people to have negative feelings about government, to have had bad experiences with the police, are more likely to have been targeted for arrests and forcible stops than white people, are more likely to have been imprisoned for minor drug crimes, and are more likely to believe that crimes against black victims are prosecuted less aggressively than crimes against whites." Thus, generally, prosecutors (and defense lawyers) believe that, all other things being equal, black jurors are more likely to acquit black defendants than other jurors. (I am not aware of any empirical studies of how race affects jury decisions. Empirical studies of jury verdicts are, it seems, far fewer than analyses of voting decisions.)
Accordingly, prosecutors and defense lawyers, both seeking to win (and believing that jury composition is a major factor as to whether they will), and therefore desiring jurors likely to favor their clients, consider race in their jury selection decisions and, when challenged (as are prosecutors more often than defense lawyers) employ less than candid justifications for their choices. And, since judges are hesitant to call lawyers, especially prosecutors, liars, the lawyers' justifications, if at all plausible, are almost always accepted. Compliance with Batson's dictates therefore is essentially, as Prof. Gershman states, "a charade," commonly violated by prosecutors (and also by defense lawyers).
To be sure, there are some differences between race-based challenges by prosecutors and by defense lawyers. Prosecutors' race-based challenges more often are exercised in order to deprive a defendant from a cross-section of the community and a jury including some of his peers; defense lawyers' race-based challenges are more often designed to reach those goals. Prosecutors' race-based challenges more often deprive black citizens of the right to serve on juries; defense lawyers' challenges enhance that (but diminish the right of whites and others to serve). Additionally, to discriminate - which is what challenging a juror based on race is - is presumably more invidious if done by an agent of the state than a private citizen. But race-based challenges by either side are common, and violate the constitutional principles of Batson.
Batson, therefore, simply does not work. Both sides commonly violate its principles to achieve their own goals. It may be considered a noble experiment with a lofty goal that has failed, or perhaps an example of a short-sighted Supreme Court just not realizing how things are done down in the pits. What can or should be done? I am sure many trial lawyers, both criminal and civil, prosecutor or defense counsel, would prefer it be eliminated. Prof. Gershman mentions a proposal to limit peremptory challenges to situations where attorneys give a "credible reason" for their exercise, what I call a challenge for "semi-cause." Another proposal he mentions is to track carefully all prosecutorial challenges similar to the way police stops are tracked. An obvious way is to eliminate all peremptory challenges, as Justice Marshall had suggested in Batson. And, of course, professional sanctions against lawyers who violate Batson might help enforce its dictates. (However, the history of lack of sanctions against prosecutors for other areas of prosecutorial misconduct suggests increased sanctions would have little effect). Lastly, more lengthy voir dire of jury panels, especially if by lawyers and not judges, would provide the litigants with a greater basis to exercise challenges than racial generalizations.
As Prof. Gershman says, "[Batson] diminishes the integrity of the criminal justice system." The decision in Foster is unlikely to solve that problem.