The Rehnquist Court (1986–2005)

Criminal Justice

Did the Rehnquist Court expand limitations on the use of peremptory challenges?

Yes, the Rehnquist Court—much to the chagrin of Chief Justice Rehnquist himself—extended the limitation on peremptory challenges announced by the Burger Court in Batson v. Kentucky (1986). Batson held that prosecutors could not use peremptory challenges in a racially discriminatory manner by striking jurors based on their race. The Rehnquist Court extended the Batson rule to civil cases in Edmonson v. Leesville Concrete Co. (1991). Thaddeus Donald Edmonson, a construction worker, had sued Leesville Concrete Co. for negligence after he suffered injuries on a job site in Louisiana. Edmonson, an African American, alleged that attorneys for the concrete company had dismissed several African American jurors because of their race. “If peremptory challenges based on race were permitted, persons could be required by summons to be put at risk of open and public discrimination as a condition of their participation in the justice system,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the Court. “The injury to excluded jurors would be the direct result of governmental delegation and participation.”

The Court also extended the Batson rationale in criminal cases. In Powers v. Ohio (1990), the Court ruled that prosecutors may not exclude jurors based on race even when the race of the jurors is different from the race of the defendant. Powers involved a white defendant who alleged discrimination because the prosecution dismissed several African Americans from the jury. In Georgia v. McCollum (1992), the Court ruled that a criminal defendant also could not dismiss jurors based on race. The case involved a white defendant charged with assaulting two African Americans. The defendant sought to limit African Americans on the jury and the prosecution objected. “We hold that the Constitution prohibits a criminal defendant from engaging in purposeful discrimination on the ground of race in the exercise of peremptory challenges,” the Court wrote.

Finally, in J.E.B. v. Alabama Ex. Rel. T. B. (1994), the Court ruled that prosecutors could use peremptories to strike jurors based on gender. The case involved a paternity action against a male defendant. The Alabama prosecutor used nine of his ten peremptory challenges to remove men from the jury panel. “We recognize that whether the trial is criminal or civil, potential jurors, as well as litigants have an equal protection right to jury selection procedures that are free from state-sponsored group stereotypes rooted in, and reflective of, historical prejudice.”


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