Tag: Thomas

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.

Scope of Double Jeopardy Clause Limited (SCOTUS)

On 17 June 2019, the US Supreme Court ruled 7-2, in Gamble v. United States, No. 17-646, 587 U.S. (2019), that the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment did not protect the petitioner against federal prosecution for an unlawful possession of firearms on the basis that the had already been tried for this act  before a State court. The Majority opinio written by Justice Alito and joined by Justices Thomas, Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan, Kavanaugh and Chief Justice Roberts demonstrates a strong literal approach to constitutional interpretation, an faithful adherence to the document’s original meaning and a great concern for federalism.

Justice Alito, writing for the Majority, held that the Double Jeopardy Clause, which protects against being ‘twice put in jeopardy’ ‘for the same offence’, remained subject to the doctrine of separate sovereignty, specifically allowing for prosecution by a State and the federal governments based on the same charges. The Majority opinion in Gamble v. United States applies a strict literal interpretation of the Fifth Amendment (Part IIA), in doing so relying on Justice Scalia’s reasoning in Grady v. Corbin, 495 U. S. 508 (1990) where he distinguished between protection against being prosecuted for the same ‘offence’ and the same ‘act’ (at 529). Justice Alito therefore argues that, as originally understood, an ‘offence’ is defined by a law and law can only be defined by a sovereign. Given that States are sovereign creators of laws, a federal offence and a State offence pertaining to the very same conduct are not in fact ‘the same offence’ and therefore the Double Jeopardy Clause does not apply.

Justice Alito refuses to consider an argument based on the legislative history of the Double Jeopardy Clause holding that “the private intent behind a drafter’s rejection of one version of a text is shoddy evidence of the public meaning of an altogether different text.” (Part IIA). But at the same time, he claims that even if the legislative history was to be relied on, it would support the doctrine of separate sovereignty. This, however, by no means is a rejection of the importance of the original meaning of the Fifth Amendment. The Majority opinion deals extensively with the argument that the doctrine of separate sovereignty goes against the English common law understanding of the rule against double jeopardy pre-dating the adoption of the Fifth Amendment, but it rejects this argument as both unsubstantiated (Part IIIA) as well against a long strain of US cases going back as far as 1847. The Majority invokes the case of Fox v. Ohio, 5 How. 410 (1847) where, at 435, the Supreme Court held that “offences falling within the competency of different authorities to restrain or punish them would not properly be subjected to the consequences which those authorities might ordain and affix to their perpetration.” (Part IIB).

Finally, Justice Alito adds yet another layer of argument – federalism. For him, States could be compared to foreign countries in terms of their sovereignty vis-a-vis the federal government. Justice Alito argues that in the absence of the doctrine of separate sovereignty, American courts would not be able to try people who have been tried in foreign courts as this would inevitably trigger the Double Jeopardy Clause. In fact, he states that “[the] Constitution rests on the principle that the people are sovereign, but that does not mean that they have conferred all the attributes of sovereignty on a single government” (Part IIB).

On the other hand, Justice Gorsuch, in his Dissenting opinion, rejects the Majority opinion as grounded nowhere in the Constitution. He argues that the history of the western legal tradition, the legislative history of the Fifth Amendment as well as the English common law understanding of the rule against double jeopardy all point to the word ‘offence’ as not having any technical meaning allowing for a double set of prosecution by a State and the federal governments.

Interestingly, Justice Thomas, used his Concurring opinion, submitted in addition to the Majority opinion which he joined, to re-emphasise his latest criticism of the doctrine of stare decisis as an inviolable rule:

“Given that the primary role of federal courts today is to interpret legal texts with ascertainable meanings, precedent plays a different role in our exercise of the ‘judicial Power’ than it did at common law. In my view, if the Court encounters a decision that is demonstrably erroneous—i.e., one that is not a permissible interpretation of the text—the Court should correct the error, regardless of whether other factors support overruling the precedent. Federal courts may (but need not) adhere to an incorrect decision as precedent, but only when traditional tools of legal interpretation show that the earlier decision adopted a textually permissible interpretation of the law. ” (Part C)

Beyond the impact on the Double Jeopardy Clause, Gamble v. United States appears to be important as it falls within the recent trend of cases decided by the US Supreme Court based on some form of historical approach. In this case, both the Majority and the Dissent argued mainly over the history of the western legal tradition, the legislative history of the Fifth Amendment and the old English common law understanding of the rule against double jeopardy. Crucially, this includes not only the five originalists, but also the four liberals.

40-year-old Precedent on State Immunity Overturned (SCOTUS)

On 13 May 2019, the US Supreme Court ruled, 5-4, in the case of Franchise Tax Board of California v. Hyatt, 587 U. S. (2019), that a State could not be sued in a Court of another state. The case, although relates to a minute procedural rule, is significant because it shows the willingness of the majority of the Court to overrule a 40 year-old precedent if it stands in the way of searching for the original meaning of the US Constitution.

In Franchise Tax Board of California v. Hyatt, 587 U. S. (2019), the Majority Opinion, delivered by Justice Thomas, expressly overruled Nevada v. Hall, 440 U.S. 410 (1979) which had held that the Constitution did not bar suits against one State in a Court of another State, even though at the time of the ratification of the Constitution, States were immune from such actions.

The Majority Opinion in Franchise Tax Board of California v. Hyatt, 587 U. S. (2019) brings together all of the hallmark traits of Justice Thomas’s judicial philosophy. First of all, the case overrules a 40 year-old precedent showing his limited interest in stare decisis. On this issue, he claims:

But stare decisis is “‘not an inexorable command,’” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U. S. 223, 233 (2009), and we have held that it is “at its weakest when we interpret the Constitution because our interpretation can be altered only by constitutional amendment,” Agostini v. Felton, 521 U. S. 203, 235 (1997). […] Nevada v. Hall is irreconcilable with our constitutional structure and with the historical evidence showing a widespread preratification understanding that States retained immunity from private suits, both in their own courts and in other courts.” (pp16-18).

Secondly, the opinion is based solely on the historical approach to the relevant legal principles. In fact, throughout his opinion, Justice Thomas talks about nothing else but history and, in doing so, he goes back even further than the time of the ratification of the Constitution:

The common-law rule was that “no suit or action can be brought against the king, even in civil matters, because no court can have jurisdiction over him.” 1 W. Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England 235 (1765) (Blackstone).” (p7)

Thirdly, despite the fact that Justice Thomas is believed to always employ strictly literal interpretation of the Constitution, the opinion shows his willingness to recognise unwritten constitutional doctrines, so long as they do not conflict with the prevailing understanding at the time of the founding. On this issue, he argues that:

There are many other constitutional doctrines that are not spelled out in the Constitution but are nevertheless implicit in its structure and supported by historical practice—including, for example, judicial review, Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch 137, 176–180 (1803); intergovernmental tax immunity, McCulloch, 4 Wheat., at 435–436; executive privilege, United States v. Nixon, 418 U. S. 683, 705–706 (1974); executive immunity, Nixon v. Fitzgerald, 457 U. S. 731, 755–758 (1982); and the President’s removal power, Myers v. United States, 272 U. S. 52, 163–164 (1926). Like these doctrines, the States’ sovereign immunity is a historically rooted principle embedded in the text and structure of the Constitution.” (p16)

The opinion delivered by Justice Thomas is in no way different from his other opinions. They are all based on the same principles. However, this time, his opinion was the Majority Opinion – he was not in dissent, nor did he have to submit a separate concurring opinion, which he often feels compelled to do. With the recent changes to the composition of the Supreme Court, it seems plausible that Justice Thomas, or at least his judicial philosophy, will be seen more and more in control of the Court’s precedents.

The Majority Opinion was supported by Justices Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Chief Justice Roberts. The four liberal Justices dissented. In his dissenting opinion, Justice Breyer also takes a historical approach to the doctrine of State immunity, but, above all, he points to the effect of stare decisis:

“In any event, stare decisis requires us to follow Hall, not overrule it. See Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, 505 U. S. 833, 854–855 (1992); see also Kimble v. Marvel Entertainment, LLC, 576 U. S. ___, ___–___ (2015) (slip op., at 7–8). Overruling a case always requires “‘special justification.’” Kimble, 576 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 8). What could that justification be in this case? The majority does not find one.

“The majority believes that Hall was wrongly decided. But “an argument that we got something wrong—even a good argument to that effect—cannot by itself justify scrapping settled precedent.” Kimble, 576 U. S., at (slip op., at 8). Three dissenters in Hall also believed that Hall was wrong, but they recognized that the Court’s opinion was “plausible.” 440 U. S., at 427 (opinion of Blackmun, J.). While reasonable jurists might disagree about whether Hall was correct, that very fact—that Hall is not obviously wrong—shows that today’s majority is obviously wrong to overrule it.(p10)

“Perhaps the majority believes that there has been insufficient reliance on Hall to justify preserving it. But any such belief would ignore an important feature of reliance. The people of this Nation rely upon stability in the law Legal stability allows lawyers to give clients sound advice and allows ordinary citizens to plan their lives. Each time the Court overrules a case, the Court produces increased uncertainty. To overrule a sound decision like Hall is to encourage litigants to seek to overrule other cases; it is to make it more difficult for lawyers to refrain from challenging settled law; and it is to cause the public to become increasingly uncertain about which cases the Court will overrule and which cases are here to stay” (pp12-13)

Civil Asset Forfeiture Limited (SCOTUS)

On 20 February, the US Supreme Court unanimously held, in the case of Timbs v. Indiana, 586 U.S. ___ (2019), that the prohibition on excessive fines contained in the 8th Amendment applied to States (as well as the federal government) and prevented Indiana from confiscating a Land Rover worth $42,000 just because it had been used during a drug transaction. The judgment is significant because it is a rare case of the Court limiting States’ civil asset forfeiture powers but also because of its discussion of the Bill of Rights’ selective incorporation process.

Civil asset forfeiture is a legal tool used by law enforcement to confiscate private property from persons suspected of illegal activity without necessarily charging them with any wrongdoing. According to some estimations, between 2011 and 2014, local and state agencies confiscated $2.5 billion in approximately 62,000 cash seizures conducted ‘without search warrants or indictments’ (The Washington Post). When it comes to the federal government, in 1985, the Justice Department’s Assets Forfeiture Fund brought in $27 million but by 2017, that figure skyrocketed to $1.6 billion (The Atlantic). In Timbs v. Indiana, 586 U.S. ___ (2019), Justice Ginsburg, writing for the majority, referred to the protection from excessive fines as a historically important safeguard recognised as early as the Magna Carta. However, the effective application of the Excessive Fine Clause of the 8th Amendment is a novelty in the Court’s jurisprudence as the Court found a violation of the Excessive Fine Clause for the first time in 1998, in United States v. Bajakajian524 U.S. 321 (1998).

The 8th Amendment prohibits, among other things, ‘excessive fines [being] imposed’. In Waters-Pierce Oil Co. v. Texas212 U.S. 86 (1909), the Supreme Court held that excessive fines were defined as fines ‘so grossly excessive as to amount to a deprivation of property without due process of law’. In Austin v. United States, 509 U.S. 602 (1993), the Court ruled for the first time that the Excessive Fines Clause applied to civil asset forfeiture conducted by the federal government, but the case was silent on its potential application to States’ actions.

Originally, just as the other Amendments constituting the Bill of Rights, the 8th Amendment was meant to apply only against the federal government. After the Civil War, with the enactment of the 14th Amendment, the Courts began to apply various safeguards contained in the Bill of Rights against States as well as the federal government. Throughout that time, the Courts usually invoked the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment as the provision rendering the Bill of Rights applicable against States. In Timbs v. Indiana, 586 U.S. ___ (2019), 7 Justices, in the opinion written by Justice Ginsburg, held that the 8th Amendment applied against the State of Indiana by virtue of the Due Process Clause. On the other hand, Justice Thomas, while concurring in the outcome of the case, produced a separate opinion on the issue of the selective incorporation where he explained that the application of the Bill of Rights against States was possible by virtue of the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the 14th Amendment, rather than the Due Process Clause. Justice Neil Gorsuch, who joined the majority opinion, also wrote a concurring opinion, agreeing with Justice Thomas on the issue of the selective incorporation.

The ruling is expected to have a considerable impact on the the use of civil asset forfeiture as it establishes a strong protection against its abuse, now applicable to both the federal and States’ governments. The case also signals potential future discussions among Justices on the effect of the 14th Amendment on the selective incorporation.