Monday, March 24, 2008

SCOTUS removes much discretion from trial judges in Batson hearings

On March 19, 2008, the Supreme Court decided Snyder v. Louisiana. In this case Snyder was convicted of first degree murder in Louisiana and sentenced to death. The case for before the Supreme Court dealt with a decision of the Louisiana Supreme Court to reject Snyder’s claim that the prosecution violated Batson v. Kentucky, when it allegedly used some of its preemptory jury challenges based on race.

The Court focused on a strike used on Jeffrey Brooks, a college senior who was also student-teaching. In offering race-neutral reasons for striking Mr. Brooks, the prosecutor informed the trial court that Brooks looked nervous during questioning and that Brooks raised the concern that he would miss class. The prosecutor stated “my main concern is for that reason…that being that he might, to go home quickly, come back with guilty of a lesser verdict so there wouldn’t be a penalty phase.”

The Supreme Court noted that the trial judge has much discretion when evaluating race-neutral reasons for striking a juror. The Court further noted that “deference is especially appropriate where a trial judge has made a finding that an attorney credibly relied on demeanor in exercising a strike.” However, the Court found nothing in the record to show that the trial judge actually made a determination regarding Mr. Brooks’ demeanor. The trial judge should have made a specific finding in the record. Because there was no specific finding in the record, the Court refused to presume that the trial judge credited the prosecutor’s assertion that Mr. Brooks was nervous.

With regard to Mr. Brooks’ concern about missing student teaching time, which was supported by the record, the Court found that this scenario was highly speculative. “Even if Mr. Brooks had favored a quick resolution, that would not have necessarily led him to reject a finding of first-degree murder. If the majority of jurors had initially favored a finding of first degree murder, Mr. Brooks’ purported inclination might have led him to agree in order to speed the deliberations. Only if all or most of the jurors had favored the lesser verdict would Mr. Brooks have been in a position to shorten the trial by favoring such a verdict.”

The court also cited that the trial was very short. The Court believed the prosecutor anticipated a short trial and thus would have known that jury service would not have seriously interfered with Mr. Brooks’ ability to complete his student teaching. This fact, in the Court’s mind, rendered the prosecution’s justification for striking Mr. Brooks “suspicious.” The Court’s suspension was reinforced by the prosecutor’s acceptance of white jurors who disclosed conflicting obligations that, in the Court’s opinion, “appeared to have been at least as serious as Mr. Brooks’.” Accordingly, the Supreme Court held that the trial court committed clear error in its ruling on the Batson objection.

Justice Thomas and Justice Scalia dissented. The dissenters argued that the majority was “only playing lip service to the pivotal role of the trial court” in evaluating a Batson challenge. The dissenters would have deferred to the trial court’s expertise in making credibility determinations and would have affirmed the judgment below.”

I believe that the Supreme Court’s decision will only lead to more appellate litigation of Batson issues. This opinion, unfortunately, strips the trial judges of much discretion in handling Batson challenges. Only a trial judge, thoroughly familiar with a particular situations and the lawyers involved can make a decision on whether a ground supporting a strike is neutral rather than discriminatory. Batson hearings usually happen very quickly. If the defendant makes a Batson motion, the prosecutor (in my experience) receives 10 to 15 minutes to gather his thoughts and to explain his strikes to the Court. Much of this depends on the prosecutor’s demeanor and the Court’s “feel” for the situation. This real-world discretion required to handle Batson challenges has now been stripped by Snyder v. Louisiana.

We must also not forget that Batson applies to civil cases as well. There is nothing in the Court’s opinion in Snyder to indicate its holding is limited to criminal cases. Hence, the Supreme Court has made trial practice for the ordinary lawyer much more difficult.


Anonymous said...

I disagree with your comments regarding Batson hearings. No trial lawyer (Civil or Criminal)worth his salt would ever go into a trial unprepared for a Batson motion regarding either side's strikes.

william said...

I disagree. In my experience, you striking a jury is a hurried process. You are flipping through documents trying to remember which person was the social worker, which has been a plaintiff in a medmal case, etc. When the other side makes its Batson motion, you are again flipping through papers reviewing information about the pool and trying to recall exactly why you chose you strike so-and-so. For me it has been high stress and little time to think things out.