Racial Bias in Jury Selection Punished (SCOTUS)

On 21 June 2019, the US Supreme Court ruled 7-2, in the case of Flowers v. Mississippi, No. 17–9572, 588 U.S. (2019), that a persistent use of peremptory challenges to remove black jurors during a series of trials against Curtis Flowers violated his rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment as explained in Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986). The only African-American on the bench, Justice Thomas, dissented.

Curtis Flowers was accused of four murders in a furniture store in Winona, Mississippi in 1996. Altogether, he had six separate jury trials. The first three ended with convictions which were later overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court on the grounds of prosecutorial misconduct. During these, no African-American sat on the jury despite the fact that the population distribution near Winona was approximately 50% African-American. Next two ended with a mistrial due to hung juries. The sixth trial was held in 2010. During the voir dire procedure proceeding the trial, the prosecution used peremptory challenges to dismiss five African-American jurors, leaving only one African-American on the jury. This trial ended with a conviction and the death sentence. Flowers appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court arguing that the use of peremptory challenges to dismiss African-American jurors violated his rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment as explained in Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986). The conviction was upheld and Flowers petitioned the US Supreme Court to hear his case.

Peremptory challenges allow attorneys from both sides to dismiss potential jurors during the voir dire procedure proceeding a trial without stating a reason. Usually, both side have a certain number of such strikes which varies form one State to another. Peremptory challenges come on top of challenges for cause which allow attorneys to dismiss any number of jurors suspected of bias. In Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), the US Supreme Court ruled that the prosecutor could not use peremptory challenges to exclude jurors based solely on their race as this practice violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

The Majority opinion in Flowers v. Mississippi, No. 17–9572, 588 U.S. (2019), written by Justice Kavanaugh, and joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor, Kagan and Chief Justice Roberts, pointed to “four critical facts, [which] taken together, require reversal“:

“First, in the six trials combined, the State employed its peremptory challenges to strike 41 of the 42 black prospective jurors that it could have struck—a statistic that the State acknowledged at oral argument in this Court… Second, in the most recent trial, the sixth trial, the State exercised peremptory strikes against five of the six black prospective jurors. Third, at the sixth trial, in an apparent effort to find pretextual reasons to strike black prospective jurors, the State engaged in dramatically disparate questioning of black and white prospective jurors. Fourth, the State then struck at least one black prospective juror, Carolyn Wright, who was similarly situated to white prospective jurors who were not struck by the State.” [pp2-3]

As to the importance of each fact, the Court held that:

“We need not and do not decide that any one of those four facts alone would require reversal. All that we need to decide, and all that we do decide, is that all of the relevant facts and circumstances taken together establish that the trial court committed clear error in concluding that the State’s peremptory strike of black prospective juror Carolyn Wright was not “motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent.”  [p3]

In issuing its verdict, the Court felt that it was not doing anything beyond applying the holding of Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986):

In reaching that conclusion, we break no new legal ground. We simply enforce and reinforce Batson by applying it to the extraordinary facts of this case.” [p3]

The Majority opinion also briefly analysed the historical relationship between the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment and the right to serve in juries. This included, apart from the 14th Amendment itself, the judgment in the Slaughter-House Cases, 16 Wall. 36, 71 (1873), the Civil Rights Act of 1875 and the judgments in Strauder v. West Virginia, 100 U. S. 303 (1880)Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U. S. 483 (1954) and Swain v. Alabama, 380 U. S. 202 (1965).

Then, the Majority opinion summarised the main principles established by Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986):

“First, the Batson Court rejected Swain’s insistence that a defendant demonstrate a history of racially discriminatory strikes in order to make out a claim of race discrimination…
Second, the Batson Court rejected Swain’s statement that a prosecutor could strike a black juror based on an assumption or belief that the black juror would favor a black defendant…
Third, the Batson Court did not accept the argument that race-based peremptories should be permissible because black, white, Asian, and Hispanic defendants and jurors were all “equally” subject to race-based discrimination…
Fourth, the Batson Court did not accept the argument that race-based peremptories are permissible because both the prosecution and defense could employ them in any individual case and in essence balance things out…” [pp13-15]

The Court also listed the types of evidence which could be relied on by the Defendant when bringing a Batson challenge: 

  • “statistical evidence about the prosecutor’s use of peremptory strikes against black prospective jurors as compared to white prospective jurors in the case;
  • evidence of a prosecutor’s disparate questioning and investigation of black and white prospective jurors in the case;
  • side-by-side comparisons of black prospective jurors who were struck and white prospective jurors who were not struck in the case;
  • a prosecutor’s misrepresentations of the record when defending the strikes during the Batson hearing;
  • relevant history of the State’s peremptory strikes in past cases; or
  • other relevant circumstances that bear upon the issue of racial discrimination.” [pp16-17]

Based on the history of Flowers’s case and the holding in Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), the Majority opinion held that the prosecution had not given sufficient race-neutral reasons to justify the exclusion of the five African-American jurors during Flowers’s 6th and final trial. This led the Court to conclude that his rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment were violated and the conviction had to be reversed.

Interestingly, Justice Thomas, the only African-American on the bench, dissented arguing that the Court “almost entirely ignores—and certainly does not refute—the race-neutral reasons given by the State for striking [five] black prospective jurors” in Flowers’s final trial [p2]. Justice Thomas claims that the Court “never should have taken this case” because it did not present any real question of law and the Court only wanted to “reconsider the factual findings of the state courts” [p4]. He also points to a bigger picture – the Majority opinion in Flowers v. Mississippi, No. 17–9572, 588 U.S. (2019), and its effect on Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), will make it “impossible to exercise a peremptory strike that cannot be challenged by the opposing party, thereby requiring a ‘neutral’ explanation for the strike. But requiring an explanation is inconsistent with the very nature of peremptory strikes.” [p40].

Justice Thomas finishes his Dissenting opinion with his own views on peremptory challenges:

In sum, as other Members of this Court have recognized, Batson charted the course for eliminating peremptory strikes… Although those Justices welcomed the prospect, I do not. The peremptory system ‘has always been held essential to the fairness of trial by jury’.” [p40]

It seems that Flowers v. Mississippi, No. 17–9572, 588 U.S. (2019) was as much about a racial bias in the jury selection as it was about the nature and place of peremptory challenges in today’s criminal justice system.