Court says civil jurors can't be barred for race

June 04, 1991|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, tightening even further its constitutional limits on lawyers who try to shape the racial makeup of juries, ruled 6-3 yesterday that those limits apply to attorneys on both sides in a civil trial.

The court moved beyond criminal trials for the first time to deal with lawyers' use of automatic dismissal of potential jurors of one race. It declared broadly:

"Racial discrimination has no place in the courtroom, whether the proceeding is civil or criminal. . . . If race stereotypes are the price for acceptance of a jury panel as fair, the price is too high to meet the standards of the Constitution."

The ruling, written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, moved the court a step closer to a complete ban on race as a factor in the use of so-called peremptory challenges -- a series of steps the court began with a ruling five years ago.

Lawyers trying criminal or civil cases are usually entitled to a certain number of "peremptory strikes" during the process of selecting a jury. Such a dismissal is automatic, in the sense that ++ the lawyer may refuse even a fully qualified juror without having any reason at all for doing so, and with no duty to offer a reason.

In its 1986 ruling, the court for the first time said that if it appears that prosecutors have used "peremptories" to keep individuals of a given race off of a criminal trial jury, the jury's makeup will be ruled unconstitutional unless prosecutors can offer a race-neutral reason for their automatic strikes.

Earlier this year, ruling again on criminal trials, the court said that the person on trial may challenge prosecutors' use of dismissals against persons of one race, even if the person on trial is not of the same race as those kept off the jury.

Until yesterday, the court had never confronted the issue in a civil case.

Using unusually broad language, indicating that the entire process of jury selection is a function of the government, the court struck down race-based use of peremptory challenges by either side in a civil trial.

That ruling left only one kind of peremptory challenge upon which the court has yet to rule: the use of such strikes, in a criminal trial, by the defense lawyer. But the sweep of the language of yesterday's opinion raised the possibility that the court in a future case might rule against those strikes.

In fact, one of yesterday's dissenters, Justice Antonin Scalia, said that the effect of the new ruling would be just that: A person of a minority race, he said, will be barred from having his or her defense lawyer use automatic strikes to keep whites off the jury.

Justice Kennedy's majority opinion did not respond to that suggestion. Joining in the majority in the case of Edmonson vs. Leesville Concrete Co. (No. 89-7743) were Justices Harry A. Blackmun, Thurgood Marshall, David H. Souter, John Paul Stevens and Byron R. White.

The dissenters, besides Justice Scalia, were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

The case

Thaddeus D. Edmonson, a black construction worker in Louisiana, was hurt on the job when a truck rolled backward and pinned him against some construction equipment. He sued Leesville Concrete Co., whose employee had allowed the truck to move backward.

At the trial, held in federal court because the accident had occurred on an Army post, Fort Polk, lawyers for Leesville Concrete used two automatic dismissals to keep blacks off the jury. A lower court allowed that, saying such dismissals could be used in civil cases. The Supreme Court overturned that result yesterday.

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