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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Essay on Berghuis v. Smith, 543 F. 3d 326

            Christopher Rumbley was shot and killed during a brawl inside a bar in Grand Rapids, Michigan on November 7, 1991.  At the time, the bar was crowded with 200 to 300 people all of whom were African-Americans.  On February 12, 1992, Michigan police arrested Diapolis Smith, an African American, and charged him with Murder in Kent County Circuit Court.  During his jury trial  Smith challenged the system of jury selection claiming that there was a systematic exclusion of African American jurors in violation of his Sixth Amendment’s right to an impartial jury. At that time, African-Americans constituted 7.28% of the County’s jury-eligible population, and 6% of the pool from which potential jurors were drawn. Smith made this argument since out of the 60-100 potential jurors there were only three African Americans in the jury pool.  The fourteen jurors eventually selected were all Caucasians

            The trial court denied allegation that there was a violation of the Sixth Amendment and the cases proceeded to trial.  The all-white jury convicted Smith of second-degree murder and possession of firearm.  Smith appealed to the Michigan Court of Appeals and argued that there was a violation of his Sixth Amendment right.  The Court of Appeals remanded the case to the trial court to conduct an evidentiary hearing on Smith’s fair-cross-section claim. 

            Upon conducting an evidentiary hearing, the trial court found that the assignment of juror being observed at the time was that the County assigned prospective jurors first to local district courts and it was only after filling the local needs that the remaining persons available to the countywide Kent Circuit Court.  Smith calls this procedure siphoning.   After Smith’s voir dire, however, the County reversed its practice and adopted a Circuit-Court-first assignment order.  This is based on the belief that the district courts took most of the minority jurors which left the Circuit Court with a jury pool that did not represent the entire County.  Moreover, the Kent County excused from service eligible jurors who pled non-statutory hardship exemptions. 

The trial court found that the African Americans were underrepresented in the jury pool of Kent Circuit Court.  Despite the findings, the trial court held that this was insufficient to prove that the juror selection process systematically excluded the African Americans.  Thus, the trial court rejected Smith’s fair-cross-section claim.

The Michigan Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s order declaring that the cause of underrepresentation was Kent County’s jury selection process at the time of Smith’s voir dire.  The Michigan Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals based on the ground that there was no evidence that will prove the systematic exclusion of African Americans.

Smith then filed a petition for review with the federal courts.  The district court denied his petition.  On appeal, the Sixth Circuit reversed ruling that there was violation of Smith’s Sixth Amendment right using the three-prong test in Duren v. Missouri.  On certiorari to the United States Supreme Court, it held that Michigan Supreme Court’s decision rejecting Smith’s fair-cross-section claim is consistent with the test in Duren and did not involve any unreasonable application of clearly established Federal law.

II. Arguments in Favor of the decision in Berghuis v. Smith
            I agree with the United States Supreme Court decision in the case of Berghuis v. Smith.  First, the United States Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States.  As the highest court, it is also the final arbiter on all legal issues.  As such, the decisions that it issue are final and may no longer be appealed to another court.  The only recourse for a party is to ask the court to reconsider its earlier ruling.  However, the Supreme Court seldom reconsiders its own decision unless the petitioner presents new arguments to the court that are meritorious.  Other than that the Supreme Court’s decision is final and may no longer be overturned.  For this reason, it is a futile exercise to argue against a decision of the Supreme Court that has attained its finality

A. The Sixth Amendment
            The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution states that “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district where in the crime shall have been committed…” The Sixth Amendment is the source of the right that guarantees an accused the right to a trial by impartial jury.  Over the course of time, the Supreme Court has interpreted the Sixth Amendment requirement of an impartial jury to mean that the jury must represent a fair cross-section of the community.

In the case of Glasser v. United States, the Supreme Court declared that it is essential in a democracy that the jury must be “representative of the community as a whole and not necessarily any specific group of people.”

This ruling is supported in the case of Williams v. Florida where the Supreme Court ruled that the number of jury members should be large enough to allow deliberation that is shielded from external influence and that the process of selecting a jury should provide an opportunity of obtaining a jury that is representative of the cross section of the community.  In Smith v. Texas 311 US 128 (1940), the Supreme Court said that the use of juries as an instrument in the administration of justice requires that the jury must be a body that is “truly representative of the community.”

The requirement that the jury must represent a fair cross-section of the community is done for the following purposes: “1) to assure that the litigants have a chance at a jury that is representative of the community; 2) to assure that all citizens have the opportunity to sit on juries; and 3) to secure the reputation of justice system for fairness.”

            The representative requirement of the sixth Amendment may be satisfied when the juries are selected at random from the community.  While the Sixth Amendment does not require that the jury should be an exact mirror image of the community, it prohibits the systematic exclusion of certain groups in the community.  If the jury pool or venire from which a jury shall be chosen in a trial excludes a particular group then the Sixth Amendment right is deemed violated.

            However, it is also a reality that the requirement of the Sixth Amendment is difficult to comply in view of the defects in the jury selection process.  Oftentimes, racial and ethnic minorities are left out in the selection of the jury.  When juries are randomly selected, there is always a possibility that it will not be a true representative of the community. 

            It must however be stressed that the constitution did not adopt a specific standards in determining the composition of the jury pool.  In fact, since time immemorial states have been given reasonable leeway in “prescribing relevant qualifications” and “providing reasonable exemptions” provided that the jury lists are representative of the community. According to White & Baik (2010), “Consequently, modifying the venire source list, if necessary in attaining a fair cross-section of the community on the
venire, was essentially left to the discretion of the federal and state governments.”

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B. Test under the case of Duren v. Missouri, 439 US 357 (1979)
            In the case of Duren v. Missouri 439 US 357 (1979), the Supreme Court declared that the defendant must prove the presence of three elements to establish a prima facie violation of the Sixth Amendment.  The defendant must prove “1) that the group alleged to be excluded is a distinctive group in the community; 2) that the representation of this group is venires from which juries are selected is not fair and reasonable in relation to the member of such persons in the community; and 3) that this under-representation is due to systematic exclusion of the group in the jury-selection process.” The Supreme Court likewise stated that if the defendant successfully proves these three elements, the burden of proof shifts to the government to show that the jury selection process which has resulted in the exclusion of a distinctive group advance a significant state interest otherwise, the court will rule in favor of the defendant. 

            It is basic rule that he who alleges a fact must first prove the presence of such fact otherwise, his claim shall fail.  In this case, Smith who alleges that there was systematic exclusion of African Americans must first establish his claim using the test established in Duren v. Missouri.  Using the three-prong test, there is usually no argument insofar as the first two elements is concerned.  It is the last element that is difficult to establish.

            In the case of Duren v. Missouri, Duren was able to prove that there was underrepresentation of women based on the following: 1) women were 54% of the jury-eligible population but it accounted only for 26.7% of the persons who were summoned for jury selection; 2) only 14.5% of the persons on the post summons weekly venires from which the jurors were drawn; 3) the Missouri’s law exempting women from jury service and the manner by which Jackson county granted the exemption underrepresented women and there was no such law that would justify exemption.

            Smith failed to establish that the first assignment order systematically excluded African Americans from in the jury selection process.  In fact, Smith even failed to establish that the assignment of juries caused underrepresentation.  There was no evidence that the African Americans were underrepresented on the jury pool of the Circuit Court compared to the Grand Rapids District Court.  Smith also failed to come up with a comparison showing the African American representation levels in the jury pool of the Circuit Court with those in the Federal District Court venires.  On the other hand, Smith was only able to introduce evidence that there was systematic exclusion based on the decline in the comparative underrepresentation from 18 to 15.1% after Kent County reversed the assignment order.

C. Imperfect Tests
            The decision in the case of Duren v. Missiouri did not determine the method to be used to measure whether there is underrepresentation of a distinctive group in the community.  The decisions in the lower courts, however, indicate that there were three methods used: absolute disparity, comparative disparity and the standard deviation.

            Each of the three tests is not conclusive to determine that there was underrepresentation.  The Supreme Court noted that both the absolute disparity and comparative disparity measurements can be misleading, especially in this case where the distinctive group of the community constitutes only a small percentage of those who are eligible for jury service.  It must be stressed that at the time the jury was selected in the case of Smith, only 7.28% of the African American population was eligible for population and only 6% became members of the pool.  Using the absolute disparity test, only 1.28% of African Americans were underrepresented.  Using the comparative disparity test, African Americans were 18% less likely when compared to the overall jury eligible population to be on the jury list.  Considering that there was only a small percentage of underrepresentation, it is clear that there was no systematic exclusion of African Americans otherwise African Americans will be underrepresented by more than 1.28%.  This must be contradistinguished from the case of Duren where 54% of women was eligible for jury service but only 26.7% were summoned for jury service.

E. Sampling of persons from all levels of the society
            As stated earlier, it is virtually impossible to have a complete representation in the jury venire of all members of the society.  In fact, there is not even a need for such in the jury venire.  Justice Thomas, in his concurring opinion was right in saying that historically, “juries did not include a sampling of persons from all levels of the society or even from both sexes.” According to White & Baik, “Thus, a trial jury drawn from a source fairly representative of the community meets the 6th guarantee to an impartial jury and the actual composition of the jury need not represent the community’s demographic composition.”

            In fact, the Sixth Amendment only requires that the jury must be impartial.  Impartiality means that the jurors are free from bias and prejudice.  If the decision was unanimous and based on the facts and the defendant did not question that impartiality of the members of the jurors then the requirement of the constitution is deemed to have been substantially satisfied. 

F. Substantial Compliance with Due Process Requirement
            One of the reasons why the right to an impartial jury is being applied in state courts is due to the fundamental right to due process.  It is said that Smith had the right to be heard by a jury that is representative of the members of the community as part of his due process right.  Due process refers to the guaranty against any arbitrariness on the part of the government whether it is committed by the legislative, executive of the judiciary.  The essence of procedural due process is the right of the person to be heard.  Using the words of Mr. Daniel Webster, it is one “which hears before it condemns, which proceeds upon inquiry and renders judgment only after trial.” Procedural due process protects the right of a person to be heard first by an impartial tribunal before any judgment which deprives him of his liberty is rendered.  It only requires that the defendant is given an opportunity to be heard.

            Smith’s procedural due process right was not violated.  The protection of his procedural due process is precisely the reason why his case has reached the United States Supreme Court.  It must be stressed that throughout the progression of his case Smith was not deprived of his opportunity to be heard.  His case was first heard by the Kent Circuit Court which was appealed to the Michigan Court of Appeals.  Subsequently, his case was remanded to the trial court upon instruction by the Michigan Court of Appeals.  After a decision was reached in the trial court, the case was appealed to the Michigan Court of Appeals and subsequently to the Michigan Supreme Court.  Later, a case was filed with the federal trial court which was appealed to the Sixth Circuit and subsequently to the United States Supreme Court.  Needless to state, Smith was given ample opportunity to be heard.  The procedural due process was complied with.

            In the case of Holland v. Illinois, the Supreme Court ruled that the Sixth Amendment requirement of a fair cross section on the venire is a means of assuring not a representative jury but an impartial one.” This means that the Sixth Amendment only requires that the jury hearing a case must be free from any taint of biases or prejudices.  It must be stressed that the fair cross section requirement does not appear in the constitution.  The constitution only requires that the accused has the right to an impartial jury.  In this case, Smith did not allege that he was denied an impartial jury.  In fact, Smith did not question the jury’s impartiality but only its composition.  Considering that there was a very small percentage of underrepresentation the claim of systematic exclusion of African-Americans in the jury pool must fail.  It also follows that the jury assignment to him was an impartial one which complied with the requirement under the constitution. 

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1 comment:

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