Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Over-eager juror excluded from trial after honoring Obama

When a black juror showed up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for a civil trial at the U.S. Courthouse in White Plains, she told the judge in voir dire that she was present because "President Obama said everybody should serve." The defense lawyer exercised his peremptory challenge on this and another black juror. Plaintiff loses the Batson challenge.

The case is Jaquith v. South Orangetown Central School District, decided on October 21. When counsel tries to keep blacks off the jury, the other side may raise a Batson challenge. Batson is a Supreme Court case which prohibits racial discrimination in jury selection. To defend his choice, the lawyer has to articulate a race-neutral reason for the challenge. The trial judge then has to decide if the explanation is credible.

Two blacks were excused. The first juror said his wife was disabled, and the plaintiff in this case said the school district failed to accommodate her disability. This is not a controversial call. More interesting is the second juror, who said President Obama "said everybody should serve." Obama had just been inaugurated. The school district's lawyer offered this explanation for excusing the second juror:

[S]he “seemed a little bit over-eager to try to do good as a preconceived notion of what good might be.” Counsel further indicated that his concern had “nothing to do with race,” but rather had “more to do with political affiliation and ideas that a person – certain political persuasion may have with respect to a case.”

I am not sure what exactly counsel was trying to say, but it seems the juror was too eager to serve and that she may not have had the right political persuasion to sit on the case. Counsel's reference to the "preconceived notion of what good might be" is lost on me completely. On appeal, the Second Circuit (Livingston, Feinberg and Koeltl) says "the district court indicated its disagreement with counsel’s reasoning as to the second juror," but the trial court also "concluded that the asserted reasons for the peremptory strikes were not a pretext for discrimination." In making these decisions at trial, the district court receives the benefit of the doubt on appeal. Although the over-eager black juror was sent home after honoring the first black President's exhortation to serve, the Court of Appeals finds no clear error in the juror's exclusion, and the plaintiff (who lost at trial) is not entitled to a new trial.

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