The Supreme Court ruled Monday that lawyers in civil cases cannot exclude potential jurors because of their race, broadly extending a landmark 1986 decision that prohibited such discrimination by prosecutors in criminal cases. Dividing 6-3, the court said racism cannot be allowed to infect the jury-selection process. Therefore, it said in an opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy, neither side may discriminate when using its automatic challenges to remove potential jurors.
"Race discrimination within the courtroom raises serious questions as to the fairness of the proceedings conducted there," Kennedy said. "Racial bias mars the integrity of the judicial system and prevents the idea of democratic government from becoming a reality."
Such discrimination, he added, "has no place in the courtroom, whether the proceeding is civil or criminal." Kennedy said there are other ways "for litigants to satisfy themselves of a jury's impartiality without using skin color as a test."
Historically, lawyers have been free to use their "peremptory challenges" to exclude potential jurors without providing any reason.
The three dissenting justices said racial discrimination by private lawyers exercising their peremptory challenges is "abhorrent" but is not prohibited by the Constitution.
"As much as we would like to eliminate completely from the courtroom the specter of racial discrimination, the Constitution does not sweep that broadly," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said in a dissenting opinion joined by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Antonin Scalia.
Monday's decision is the latest, and perhaps the most far reaching, step in a revolution in the court's approach to the use of peremptory challenges in jury selection launched five years ago in a Kentucky case.
Peremptory challenges are used by lawyers in both civil and criminal cases to get rid of potential jurors, for any reason or no reason at all. (Some potential jurors are excused "for cause," because the judge determines that they could not decide the case fairly.)
In practice, particularly in racially charged cases, both prosecutors and private lawyers have often used racial stereotypes, at least as one factor, in deciding how to use their limited number of peremptory strikes.
But their liberty to do so changed with an 1986 ruling in which the court said defendants in criminal trials can challenge the actions of prosecutors who appear to be using peremptory challenges to keep members of a particular race off juries. The prosecutors, the court said, must then offer legitimate, "race-neutral" reasons for their actions.
Monday's decision opened an entirely new class of cases _ civil lawsuits _ to claims of racial discrimination in jury selection. The greatest impact is expected to be in employment discrimination and other civil-rights cases, where race is directly at issue.
In addition, it appears likely that the Supreme Court's reasoning in the case is broad enough to cover use of peremptory challenges by criminal defense lawyers, a question that the court left open in the 1986 case.
The case decided Monday involved Thaddeus Edmonson, a black construction worker injured in an on-the-job accident at a Louisiana concrete company.
During jury selection in the case, the company used two of its three peremptory challenges to remove blacks from the jury panel. The judge refused to question the company about that pattern, ruling that Batson did not apply to civil cases.
The jury which was ultimately selected, consisting of 11 whites and one black, awarded Edmonson only $18,000, saying his own negligence was largely responsible for the accident. The federal appeals court in New Orleans agreed with the trial judge.
In reversing that decision Monday, the court sent the case back to the lower court to determine whether the company attorney in fact used his peremptory challenges in a discriminatory way.
In other action Monday, the court:
Ruled unanimously that a federal court erred when it allowed Louisiana to proceed with elections for state judgeships before they could be approved by the U.S. attorney general, as required by the federal Voting Rights Act.
Agreed to decide whether the federal government is immune from having to pay $250,000 in civil penalties to Ohio for violating environmental laws at the nuclear weapons plant in Fernald, Ohio.