ACLU Applauds Supreme Court Rulings in Two Cases Charging Racial Bias in Jury Selection

June 13, 2005 12:00 am

Media Contact
125 Broad Street
18th Floor
New York, NY 10004
United States


WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union today applauded two decisions by the Supreme Court that will make it more difficult for prosecutors to engage in racial discrimination during jury selection.

In one case, the Court overturned the 1986 conviction of a black death row inmate, finding that Texas prosecutors wrongly stacked his jury with whites; in the other, the Court requires prosecutors to provide a race-neutral explanation for juror challenges if there is reason to believe that race discrimination is at play.

“Racial discrimination in jury selection not only violates the rights of defendants, it also undermines the integrity of the criminal justice system,” said Steven R. Shapiro, Legal Director of the ACLU. “Discrimination in jury selection is a serious and ongoing problem and the Court’s decisions today attempt to address this problem.”

In Miller-El v. Dretke, the Supreme Court ruled that Texas prosecutors engaged in racial discrimination by using peremptory strikes to block 10 out of 11 black jurors in the capital case of Thomas Miller-El. The 6-3 decision, delivered by Justice David H. Souter, sharply criticized rulings by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals and the state court that Miller-El failed to show convincing evidence of purposeful discrimination.

“We find this conclusion unsupportable ? The state court’s conclusion that the prosecutors’ strikes ? were not racially determined is shown up as wrong to a clear and convincing degree; the state court’s conclusion was unreasonable as well as erroneous,” wrote Souter.

The High Court rebuked the Texas prosecutors for using peremptory strikes to exclude 91 percent of the eligible African Americans from the jury list in Miller-El’s case. The Court also said that racial discrimination was confirmed by evidence that the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office in the early 1980’s advised prosecutors to remove all minorities from juries with peremptory challenges because they “empathize with the defendant.”

“The practice of racial discrimination during jury selection is particularly egregious in a capital punishment case where a person’s life is at stake,” said Rachel King, a staff attorney with the ACLU Capital Punishment Project.

In the second case, Johnson v. California, the Supreme Court found that California’s standard for reviewing jury bias claims places too much of a burden on defendants. In an 8-1 decision, the Court said that it was too “onerous” for a defendant to first persuade a judge that racial discrimination more likely than not occurred during jury selection before allowing a bias claim to continue. The Court ruled that the prosecution must provide a race-neutral explanation for making a peremptory challenge once the inference of discrimination has been raised.

The decision came in a case brought by Jay Johnson, who charged that prosecutors engaged in racial discrimination when they dismissed prospective black jurors from his case. Johnson was convicted in 1998 by an all-white jury.

The ACLU filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Supreme Court on Johnson’s behalf. More information on this case is available at: /cpredirect/18251.

The Supreme Court ruling in Miller-El v. Dretke is online at:

The Supreme Court ruling in Johnson v. California is online at:

Every month, you'll receive regular roundups of the most important civil rights and civil liberties developments. Remember: a well-informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny.