The Ninth Circuit, in SmithKline v. Abbott Labs, Bars Lawyers From Removing Gay/Lesbian Jurors: Part Two in a Two-Part Series

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Posted in: Constitutional Law

In Part One of this series, we began to analyze the recent decision from the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in SmithKline Beecham Corp. v. Abbott Laboratories. The three-judge panel there held that, in light of the Supreme Court’s decision last summer in United States v. Windsor (invalidating the federal Defense of Marriage Act, DOMA), all government discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is subject to “heightened scrutiny” under the Equal Protection Clause and that, accordingly, it violates the Constitution for lawyers to use peremptory challenges to strike would-be jurors on account of the juror’s sexual orientation. (For background on the Abbott case and the general topic of peremptory challenges, readers may want to consult Part One.) In particular, we discussed whether the Ninth Circuit was right to read Windsor to have signaled a decision by the Supreme Court that intermediate level scrutiny governed DOMA, and that intermediate level scrutiny should also govern all other sexual-orientation-based discrimination.

The Abbott decision is already influencing litigation involving discrimination against gays and lesbians far beyond the issue of jury selection. Earlier this week, for example, as a result of the Abbott court’s reasoning and holding, the Governor and Attorney General of Nevada announced that they would no longer defend the state’s ban on same-sex marriages in federal court because the arguments supporting the ban were “no longer defensible.” In the space below, however, we limit our analysis to the implications of Abbott for peremptory challenges generally and sexual-orientation-based peremptory challenges in particular.

Do Peremptory Challenges Threaten to “Exclude Entire Classes of Individuals?”

As one of us has noted in earlier writings, including a column posted here, courts have been reluctant to expand the list of juror attributes on which peremptories may not be exercised in part because of a concern over slippery slopes. If peremptories cannot be used on the basis of race, and gender and (now) sexual orientation, then what about disability, age, or alienage, etc.? While Judge Reinhardt’s Ninth Circuit opinion in Abbott never really addresses this question directly, he implicitly suggests that limiting prohibitions on peremptories to only those groups that benefit from “heightened scrutiny” will arrest the slippery slope. In this regard, he analogizes to and quotes heavily from the cases the Court has handed down prohibiting race- and gender-based peremptories. He says, for example, drawing on the gender-based peremptory case, J.E.B. v. Alabama ex. rel. T.B., that “striking potential jurors on the basis of their gender harms ‘the litigants, the community and the individual jurors’ because it reinforces stereotypes and creates an appearance that the judicial system condones the exclusion of an entire class of individuals.”

From one perspective, this kind of analysis is overblown particularly in cases like J.E.B. Peremptory challenges, even if used aggressively on the basis of gender, don’t necessarily threaten to remove “an entire class of individuals” from juries, because both sides of a case get the same number of peremptories. If one side is removing women (as in J.E.B.), perhaps there is reason to believe the other side would be attempting to remove men. If these opposing uses of peremptories are equally effective, then there may be no reason to believe there would be fewer women on any particular jury, let alone across all juries.

The Special Case of Numerical Minorities, and Minorities Without a Natural Majority Counterpart

There are forceful responses to this suggestion, however, that may support Justice Reinhardt even though he doesn’t really address this issue (or the nitty gritty of applying heightened scrutiny at all, for that matter.) First, the neutralizing effect of the opposing use of gender-based peremptories arises, if at all, only because men and women are roughly equal in number in most jurisdictions and (somewhat less so) in the draw of the would-be jurors and replacement jurors for any particular jury. But this neutralizing or offsetting effect is not present where the bases on which peremptories are exercised involve (numerical) minority and majority groups.

A simple numerical example may help drive the point home. Suppose a jurisdiction had a demographic makeup of 75% whites and 25% racial minorities. And suppose that the initial draw of twelve would-be jurors exactly mirrors these percentages—that is, nine whites and three non-white minorities are drawn. Suppose further that each side is given three peremptory strikes, and that each side uses its peremptories to aggressively remove people based on their white or minority race, respectively. So one side (perhaps the side of a Title VII minority plaintiff) uses its three strikes to remove three white would-be jurors, and the other side uses its three strikes to remove the three people of color who were initially drawn for the jury.

So now we are left with six whites, six slots to fill, and no peremptory challenges. Those six empty slots are then filled, and again, if we are assuming a draw that reflects the demographics of the larger pool, on average only 1.5 (or 25% of six) minority jurors would be selected, and 4.5 whites (75% of six) would join the group. The overall makeup of the jury after all is said and done would be 10.5 whites and 1.5 minority folks—half the number of minority persons who were initially drawn before each side was allowed to engage in a racial peremptory war. Because this scenario could repeat itself across many or most juries, allowing each side to use race to strike prospective jurors could very likely diminish minority jury participation writ large. This systemic effect is what makes the race-based peremptory-challenge cases easy to defend for those of us who care about inclusion and fair representation of the community on juries.

And what is true for race is also true for sexual orientation, insofar as gays and lesbians are, like persons of color, numerical minorities. Indeed, peremptory challenges, if allowed on the basis of sexual orientation, may be particularly likely to reduce participation of gays and lesbians on juries, writ large, because unlike race and gender, in the sexual orientation setting, it is less natural to think about “opposing” uses of peremptories. In the racial setting, if one side excludes blacks, the other may find it advantageous to remove whites. And the same is true for removing women and men. But even if one side tries to remove one or two would-be jurors because they are gay, the other side is less likely to think to remove other jurors because they are straight.

The problem here is that equal protection doctrine both legally and intuitively doesn’t always operate with the kind of symmetry that the Court has developed in race and gender discrimination cases. In race and gender cases, the Court justified its application of heightened scrutiny initially by examining past discrimination against the class of racial minorities and women. Over time, however, the Court shifted its attention in these cases away from a suspect class and toward a suspect classification. The Court’s focus was no longer on whether a law disadvantaged racial minorities or women, but rather on whether the challenged law employed a racial or gender classification.

But this shift from suspect class to suspect classification seems more counterintuitive when other equal protection cases are considered. Thus we think more about discrimination against aliens than we do citizenship classifications, more about discrimination against non-marital children than marital children classifications, and more about discrimination against gays and lesbians than sexual orientation classifications. Accordingly, it would hardly be surprising to discover that lawyers might not engage in any affirmative effort to identify and remove straights from a jury, generally speaking, the way they might identify and strike men, women, blacks, whites, and gays. So if sexual-orientation peremptories are permitted, then Judge Reinhardt’s concern about the exclusion of an entire group must be taken seriously.

Implementing Abbott’s equal protection ban on sexual-orientation-based peremptories might not be easy in practice, however. As Kathryne Young and others point out, unlike a person’s race and sex, sexual orientation isn’t obvious to an outside observer, so policing sexual orientation-based discrimination may raise distinctive problems. It is often difficult enough to prove that an attorney who is striking African-Americans or women is doing so because of their race or gender when the racial or gender identity of the stricken jurors is apparent. Objections to peremptory strikes based on sexual orientation may also involve placing some would-be jurors in the uncomfortable position of having to affirm or deny their membership in an LGBT group. The Ninth Circuit began to discuss these problems, but the implementation of this new rule will require more care and attention as it is applied in practice, which is often the case after cutting-edge constitutional decisions are rendered.

The Link Connecting Jury Service and Voting

Besides practical concerns, there is a more fundamental, theoretical objection to the constitutional doctrine developed by the Supreme Court and the lower courts in this area of law. That is whether the Equal Protection Clause is the appropriate prism through which to view the problem of juror exclusion in the first place. A different set of constitutional provisions, the provisions dealing with voting and other political rights, may provide a better foundation for helping courts to decide how skeptical to be about peremptory challenges. Jury service has traditionally been tied, and analogized, to voting, and this linkage makes sense: jurors, like individuals casting ballots for members of Congress or the President, exercise their power by voting for particular results; jurors implement policy when they decide cases, just as voters help shape policy by electing representatives or adopting initiatives. Indeed, until the later Twentieth Century, voting and jury service were considered “political rights” governed not so much by the Fourteenth Amendment, but more directly by the voting rights amendments, including the Fifteenth (which prohibits race discrimination in voting); the Nineteenth (which prohibits gender discrimination in voting); the Twenty-Fourth (which in effect prohibits wealth discrimination in voting), and the Twenty-Sixth (which prohibits age discrimination in voting.)

If we take the juror-as-voter analogy seriously, then removing people from juries becomes more problematic, because certainly we would not allow governmental actors (at least not since the Supreme Court decided important voting rights cases dating back to the 1960s) to prevent any would-be voter from participating in any particular election unless there were to be a compelling justification for doing so. This may partly explain why some Justices (most notably Justice Breyer) have, over the last few decades, been unmoved by the prospect of a slippery slope regarding peremptories, because these Justices think that the Court should reconsider whether any peremptory challenges can be constitutionally exercised.

But for those who are not yet ready to dispense with all peremptories, toeholds on the slippery slope are needed. One such toehold is hinted at in the analysis above—at the very least, the groups that receive textual protection in the Constitution from discrimination in voting (groups defined by race, gender, wealth and age in the voting rights amendments) should also be protected from discrimination in jury service. So far, the Supreme Court has embraced protection for the first three kinds of groups. Prospective jurors identified by race or gender are protected under explicit equal protection holdings, and jurors identified to some extent by economic class or status have been protected more ambiguously pursuant to the Court’s general supervisory powers over the federal courts, The Court has not yet ruled on whether the fourth group, defined by age, should receive comparable protection.

On this analysis, peremptories that are used to exclude gay or lesbian persons wouldn’t seem to implicate the voting rights amendments (unless we shoehorned sexual orientation discrimination into sex discrimination—an analysis with persuasive force in some circumstances, but not others.) But the political-rights paradigm (as distinguished from the equal protection framework) does help to explain why one group that is protected by equal protection doctrine from state-level discrimination—aliens—have no right to avoid exclusion from juries. Indeed, through most of modern American history, non-citizens have been ineligible to serve on juries (just as they have been ineligible to vote.) California has recently considered legislation that would allow non-citizens to serve on juries (and there would be no constitutional problem with such experimentation), but it is unlikely that courts will protect their access.

From this perspective, Judge Reinhardt’s reasoning correctly recognizes that while the application of heightened scrutiny under the Equal Protection Clause to laws disadvantaging a particular class is certainly relevant to the review of peremptory challenges directed at class members, it cannot be a sufficient ground for holding that these challenges are unconstitutional. The alienage cases demonstrate that a class protected by heightened scrutiny review may still be excluded from jury service. Ultimately, it is necessary to return to our earlier points about what it is, exactly, that seems so problematic about certain kinds of peremptory challenges. Peremtory challenges directed at LGBT persons are problematic because they run a particularly high risk of eliminating a distinct set of voices from juries writ large. That is the kind of harm that requires a constitutional remedy.

Will the Supreme Court Review Abbott?

It is possible that the Ninth Circuit as a whole, en banc, will decide to review the three-judge panel’s decision in Abbott. What about the Supreme Court? Shortly after Abbott came down, the thoughtful New York Times legal analyst Adam Liptak suggested there might be a split between Abbott and a case from the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which opined that sexual orientation is not an invalid basis for peremptories, and that such a split may be of interest to the Supreme Court. We think the Court is unlikely to exercise its discretion to review Abbott for several reasons. For starters, there really is no split with the Eighth Circuit. The language in the Eighth Circuit case suggesting that sexual orientation is a permissible basis for peremptories was dicta, since the court in that case found that the lawyer did not base the peremptory in question on sexual orientation in the first place. Moreover, the Eighth Circuit case predates Windsor, so there is no split on the precise question Judge Reinhardt’s opinion answered—whether Windsor fundamentally changed the constitutional standard of review regarding discrimination against gays and lesbians. . The Eighth Circuit hasn’t weighed in on that question yet, so we don’t know if the two circuits really disagree.

But even if another Circuit were to disagree with Abbott in the near future, we still would not expect the Supreme Court to grant review. The Court decided Windsor inscrutably (and dodged the merits altogether in Hollingsworth v. Perry, the California Proposition 8 case) because the Court wasn’t ready yet to resolve the basic same-sex marriage question, let alone whether all sexual-orientation discrimination is problematic. Taking review in Abbott would require the Court to resolve the very kinds of questions it has been trying to avoid. Last year, the Justices, as a group, seemed to want to buy some time to allow political deliberation to move forward on gay rights issues, and one year is simply not long enough for that to happen. Even though things have changed a great deal of late (with many more states embracing same-sex marriage), the times are still changing. Until the landscape begins to settle down, we would not expect the Court to reenter the picture if it can avoid doing so.

  • eagle

    Opps….a sua sponte en banc call was issued. The Nevada AG looks dumb.
    She could have just filed a rule 28j notice of subsequent precedent, instead of pulling a jerry brown and running scared of the democrat lynching party. The oath of office applies on sunny days and rainy ones alike…when it is 110, and days it is not.