What is a Batson Challenge?

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A longtime tenant of the American judicial system is that every individual is entitled to a fair and impartial jury trial.  Over the history of the nation’s existence, the Supreme Court has illuminated what a “fair and impartial” jury trial means, and what rights for criminal defendants are protected under the United States Constitution.  This blog will examine how the case of Batson v. Kentucky has broadened the scope of what a fair jury trial means for those charged with crimes.

Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment

The first section of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution contains the Equal Protection Clause.   It mandates that all people in the United States should be treated equally under the law.  Written and ratified in the wake of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the Equal Protection Clause has caused sweeping changes for individuals whose rights had previously been marginalized.  For instance, this clause was the basis for the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which helped to dissolve racial segregation in the 1950’s.  The Equal Protection clause was later the basis for the ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same sex marriages.  In short, the Equal Protection Clause has been the basis for several Supreme Court decisions that have rejected discrimination against people on the basis of their age, sex, race, or sexual orientation.  In 1986, the Equal Protection Clause was the basis for the Court’s ruling in Batson v. Kentucky.

The Issue in Batson v. Kentucky

Before examining the key issue in Batson, it’s important to understand how a jury is selected.   A jury is selected during the voir dire process.  In this process, a panel of randomly selected individuals is brought into the courtroom for both the state and the defense attorney to question.  Both the state and defense each have ten peremptory strikes or strikes that can be used to remove potential jurors from the jury pool for any reason.

In terms of the Batson case itself, James Batson is an African American man that was convicted of burglary in Louisville, Kentucky after a jury trial.  In Batson’s trial, there were four potential African American jurors on the entire jury panel.  During voir dire, the defense used nine of its ten peremptory strikes.  The state only used six of its ten but struck all four of the potential African American jurors.  Batson’s defense attorneys objected to the striking of all the African Americans from the panel, stating that doing so violated Batson’s right to a fair trial under the 14th Amendment.  The trial court judge overruled (denied) the objection, but the issue has subsequently preserved for appeal.  Batson proceeded to trial and was ultimately convicted by the all-white jury.

Eventually, the issue presented in Batson made it the United States Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court sided with Batson, holding that the Equal Protection Clause guarantees that the state cannot exclude potential jurors from serving on a jury on account of their race alone.

How does a Batson Challenge Work?

In Batson, the Supreme Court ruled that a defendant can make a prima facie case for purposeful racial discrimination in jury selection.  The term “Batson challenge” refers to an objection to an opposing party’s use of a peremptory strike to exclude a juror from the jury pool on the basis of race.  In practice, a Batson challenge unfolds as follows:

  • The defendant must show that he/she is a member of a cognizable racial group,
  • That the state has used a peremptory strike to remove a potential juror from the jury pool that is the same race as the defendant, and
  • The defendant must raise an inference that the state has used a peremptory challenge to exclude the potential juror on the basis of race alone.

Once the defendant establishes the above three elements, the state has the burden of explaining a race neutral reason for why the juror in question was stricken.  If the state cannot articulate a race neutral reason for striking the potential juror, the strike will be reversed, and the potential juror will be seated as a juror for the trial.

The Supreme Court’s ruling in Batson v. Kentucky broadened the scope of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.  Batson challenges have become a fairly routine practice in jury trials across the country.  If successful, a Batson challenge can help the defendant get the fair trial that he/she deserves under the United States Constitution.

If you or a loved one are facing criminal charges it is imperative to have an experienced, skilled litigator that can maximize the defendant’s right to a fair and impartial jury.  Contact the attorneys at Banks and Brower anytime at 317-870-0019 or anytime at info@banksbrower.com.