March 30, 2010

Supreme Court Decides Berghuis v. Smith

On March 30, the Supreme Court decided Berghuis v. Smith, No. 08-1402, holding that a criminal defendant was not entitled to habeas corpus relief from his conviction based on his contention that he had been denied the right to be tried by an impartial jury reflecting a fair cross-section of the community, where he failed to show that African Americans had been systematically excluded from the venire panel from which his jury had been drawn.

The Sixth Amendment secures to criminal defendants the right to be tried by an impartial jury that reflects a fair cross-section of the community in which the trial occurs. Duren v. Missouri, 439 U.S. 367 (1979) held that, to establish a violation of this right, a defendant must show (1) that the allegedly excluded group is a "distinctive" group within the community; (2) that the group's representation in venires from which juries are drawn is not fair and reasonable in relation to the group's size in the community; and (3) that this under-representation results from the group's "systematic exclusion" from the jury-selection process.

In this case, defendant Smith alleged that his Sixth Amendment right had been violated because of under-representation of African Americans in the jury venire in Kent County, Michigan (Grand Rapids), where he was tried. Although African Americans comprised 7.28 percent of the county's population, the venire of 60 to100 people from which his jury was drawn included only three African Americans. The trial court rejected Smith's objection to his jury's racial composition, and the Michigan Supreme Court ultimately affirmed, holding that, even if it were assumed that the venire was under-representative, there was no showing that African Americans had been systematically excluded. Smith then filed a habeas corpus petition in federal court. The district court denied the petition, but the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed, ruling that the "comparative disparity" test must be used to determine under-representation, that this test established that African Americans were under-represented on Kent County venires, and that the evidence showed systematic exclusion.

The Supreme Court reversed unanimously. The Court has never specified a particular standard for determining whether a distinctive group is under-represented, it noted—and it declined to adopt a single standard in this case, noting that all of the potential standards are imperfect in one respect or another. Thus, there is no "clearly established federal law" on this subject that would support habeas corpus relief under the under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. And even if African Americans were under-represented, the evidence was insufficient to establish that they had been systematically excluded. Although the county had adopted a new jury-pool procedure after Smith's trial, under which the African American proportion of the pool was slightly higher, there was no evidence that the procedure under which Smith's jury pool was drawn had a significantly adverse impact on the representation of African Americans.

Justice Ginsburg delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. Justice Thomas filed a concurring opinion.

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