WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court has broadened the right of criminal defendants to object to the use of race in jury selection.
The 7-to-2 ruling significantly expanded on a 1986 Supreme Court decision that permitted defendants to object to the prosecution's use of peremptory challenges to exclude members of the defendant's race from a jury.
The court yesterday declared in an opinion by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy that the use of racial criteria in the government's selection of a jury is unconstitutional regardless of the race of the defendant or of the excluded jurors.
The court applied this principle in an appeal brought by an Ohio man who is himself white and was convicted of murdering two white people. Kennedy said that the man, Larry J. Powers, should have been permitted to object to the government's exclusion from his jury of seven potential jurors who were black.
Kennedy said that racial discrimination by the government in the selection of a jury causes "real injury" both to the defendant and to the excluded jurors, regardless of the race of the individuals involved.
Peremptory jury challenges, a traditional part of the Anglo-American legal system, enable both prosecution and defense to eliminate potential jurors without giving a reason. State law usually gives the two sides a set number of peremptory challenges, in contrast to challenges for cause, by which any num
ber of jurors can be removed for expressions of bias or similar reasons.
The decision yesterday, like previous rulings on racial discrimination in jury selection, deals only with actions by the prosecution. The 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection of the law, the basis for the rulings in this area, applies only to "state action."
The court has yet to define the extent to which actions by defense lawyers, who are private citizens, can be considered "state action" inthe context of the courtroom.