Batson v. Kentucky: Case Brief

Instructor: Erin Krcatovich

Erin teaches undergraduate and graduate classes in Political Science, Public Policy, and Public Administration and has a PhD in Political Science.

''Batson v. Kentucky'' was a 1986 Supreme Court case concerned with racially discriminatory practices during jury selection. In this lesson, we will learn about jury selection, the background of this case and the Court's decision.

Jury Selection

In the United States, you have the right to a jury of your peers to decide your case. If you are accused of a crime, a jury will be assembled of people in the community who will listen to the case and decide whether you are guilty or innocent. Juries are also used in many civil cases, when one person sues another.

The process of selecting a jury before trial begins is called voir dire, or 'to speak the truth.' Here, a large group of people are called to the courthouse and, in smaller groups, called back to be questioned by the attorneys from both sides of the case before a judge. In these small groups, potential jurors are asked about their background and fitness for jury service. The attorneys use this process to determine who will best be able to serve as a juror on the case. In Batson v. Kentucky, the Supreme Court considered when challenges to potential jurors were appropriate.

As these groups are interviewed by the attorneys, some of the potential jurors will not be appropriate for that particular case. For example, it is a problem to have a jury member who has worked with the defendant - his or her impartiality might be compromised. For this reason and others, attorneys are allowed to challenge some of the jurors, which can take several forms. A challenge for cause dismisses a juror because he or she is prejudiced against the defendant or has prior knowledge about the case.

Attorneys are also allowed to dismiss jurors without reason. This is called a peremptory challenge, and it is used strategically by the attorneys to shape the jury in a favorable direction for their side. In 2015, the trial of James Holmes included having several jurors dismissed; one of these was accused of knowing a witness from outside of court, a fact which should have caused the juror to be challenged for cause during voir dire, rather than as a peremptory challenge.

Batson v. Kentucky Background

Batson, a black man, was accused of burglary and receiving stolen goods. During the jury selection process for his trial, the attorneys dismissed several potential jurors for cause that showed some bias against the defendant. Then, the prosecution chose to use peremptory challenges to dismiss the remaining four African American potential jurors. Batson was then tried and convicted by an all-white jury. He asked for an appeal on the grounds that the jury was not fairly representative. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case to consider whether the use of peremptory challenges in this case was unconstitutional.

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