Johnson v. California

PETITIONER: Jay Shawn Johnson
RESPONDENT: California
LOCATION: City of New London Town Hall

DOCKET NO.: 04-6964
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: Supreme Court of California

CITATION: 545 US (2005)
GRANTED: Jan 07, 2005
ARGUED: Apr 18, 2005
DECIDED: Jun 13, 2005

ADVOCATES:
Stephen B. Bedrick - argued the cause for Petitioner
Seth K. Schalit - argued the cause for Respondent

Facts of the case

NonJay Shawn Johnson, on trial in California for murder, objected to the district attorney's use of peremptory challenges to eliminate all three black prospective jurors. Johnson argued the eliminations were based on race. The judge denied Johnson's motions and held that Johnson had failed to show a "strong likelihood" that the dismissals were race-based. The judge relied on People v. Wheeler, the 1978 case in which the California Supreme Court ruled that to establish a prima facie case of racial bias in peremptory challenges, the objector had to show "strong likelihood" that the challenges were race-based. The jury found Johnson guilty of second-degree murder.

Johnson appealed and argued that the "strong likelihood" standard in Wheeler was at odds with the 'reasonable inference" standard the U.S. Supreme Court set in Batson v. Kentucky (1986). The appeals court agreed and reversed Johnson's conviction. The California Supreme Court reversed and ruled that the two standards were the same. The U.S. Supreme Court at first dismissed Johnson's appeal because the case was not finalized (see Johnson v. California 2004, No. 03-6539). After another round of appeals, however, the Court agreed to decide the case.

Question

In order to establish a prima facie case under Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), must the objector show that it is more likely than not that the other party's peremptory challenges were based on impermissible group bias?

Media for Johnson v. California

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 18, 2005 in Johnson v. California

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 13, 2005 in Johnson v. California

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the court in Johnson versus California will be announced by Justice Stevens.

John Paul Stevens:

The Batson against California, a case decided in 1986, established a three-step procedure for determining whether a prosecutor’s peremptory challenges of prospective jurors were motivated by racial bias.

First, the defendant must make a showing that the relevant facts raise an inference of discrimination.

Second, if they do, the burden shifts to the prosecutor to offer a race-neutral explanation for his peremptory strikes.

Third, the Court must then decide on the basis of the entire record whether the prosecutor engaged in purposeful discrimination.

The narrow question in this case concerns the quantum of evidence that defendants must provide at step one.

Petitioner, an African American, was convicted of second-degree murder and assault on a white child.

His jury was all white because the prosecutor used three peremptory challenges to remove all three African Americans from the jury pool.

Petitioner’s counsel objected that the strikes were unconstitutionally based on race.

The trial judge, however, did not ask the prosecutor to explain his motives.

Instead, the judge reviewed the record on his own and concluded that petitioner had not demonstrated a strong likelihood that the peremptory challenges were based upon group bias.

The California Intermediate Court of Appeals reversed but the State Supreme Court agreed with the Trial Court holding that to establish a prima facie case, the defendant must present sufficient evidence to establish that it was more likely than not, that the prosecutor was motivated by discriminatory purpose before the judge needed to ask for an explanation of this motive in exercising the peremptory challenges.

We granted certiorari because the Court's interpretation of Batson conflicted with the decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

We now hold that the Ninth Circuit’s interpretation is the correct one and reversed the judgment of the California Supreme Court.

As we explained in greater detail in an opinion filled with the clerk, step one of Batson merely requires the defendant to produce sufficient evidence to support a plausible inference that discrimination has occurred.

If the defendant’s evidence establish such an inference, it is inappropriate to rely on mere speculation.

Instead, the trial judge should simply ask the prosecutor to explain his actual justifications for the strikes.

Batson’s burden shifting framework should promote the public purpose of eradicating discrimination from our civic institutions and eliminating the perception that the trial has been infected by discrimination in the jury selection process.

In this case, the California Supreme Court acknowledged that it certainly looked suspicious that all three African American prospective jurors were removed from the jury.

That inference that discrimination may have occurred where sufficient to establish a prima facie case under Batson and to require an explanation from the prosecutor.

We therefore reverse the judgment of the California Supreme Court and remand for further proceedings not inconsistent with our opinion.

Justice Breyer has filed a concurring opinion and Justice Thomas has filed a dissenting opinion.