Back when Snyder v. Lousiana was argued, I wondered whether the opinion might be Justice Breyer's chance "to reconsider Batson's test and the peremptory challenge system as a whole," as he has put it. The Court decided Snyder today (the opinion is here, thanks to ScotusBlog), and far from reconsidering tests and systems, Snyder is one of the most conscientiously narrow decisions you'll ever read.
The result is striking, though, even if the reasoning is not. In an opinion written by one of its most conservative members, the Supreme Court has reversed a state court death penalty conviction, in a case with almost unreadably horrible facts, because it didn't accept the prosecutor's asserted justification for striking a single black juror.
Snyder was the case where the prosecutor struck every African-American in the venire, four successfully for cause and five with peremptory strikes. He then argued to an all-white jury that the case was reminiscent of the O.J. Simpson prosecution. The briefs before the Court raised issues of interconnectedness: whether and to what degree each strike should be considered in light of the others, and whether the O.J. Simpson reference intensified the alleged Batson error.
The Court's opinion doesn't get to any of this; indeed, unless I missed it, the word "Simpson" isn't used in either the majority or the dissenting opinion. Instead, Justice Alito's opinion considers a single juror, a college student whom the prosecutor had claimed looked "nervous" and might miss some time at his student teaching job. Justice Alito said the trial judge made no finding as to whether the juror was nervous, and so deserved no deference; and the student teaching conflict didn't hold up either on its own or in comparison to white jurors who served on the jury in spite of similar conflicts. Thus Justice Alito found no need to consider the reasons asserted for striking another juror, no need to consider whether the purported reasons for the two strikes shed light on each other, and no need to even mention O.J. Simpson. Only Justice Thomas and Justice Scalia dissented.
The opinion reads straightforwardly, as though Batson analysis always goes like this. It doesn't, although this opinion may help. Batson cases in the courts of appeals often seem like a steady stream of acceptance of purportedly neutral reasons for strikes, reasons that sometimes don't even sound neutral. Against that background, the Snyder opinion feels like real change.
Of course there's a bigger issue here -- one that, as sentencing guru Doug Berman points out, is particularly powerful in light of Barack Obama's brave and candid race speech yesterday. Can I just say it? What the Snyder prosecutor did was ugly, but racist lawyers aren't the only ones who strike black -- or white -- jurors. Responsible lawyers think about race when they're making peremptory strikes. They think about it because, as Senator Obama and many others have explained, a juror's race is an enormous factor in shaping her experiences and her attitudes, just as my race shaped mine and your race shaped yours. It isn't the only thing that shaped us, but no one can say it doesn't matter.
Even Batson itself doesn't claim race is irrelevant. Batson instead is based on a different and bigger principle, that striking jurors based on race deprives not only defendants but also those jurors of a fair, nondiscriminatory jury system. This tension, between the ideal of nondiscrimination and the reality of race in shaping jurors' attitudes, has made lower courts struggle with Batson ever since it was decided. Snyder may help them struggle more bravely, but they'll still struggle.
Discussion of Snyder elsewhere so far (I'll try to update this list):
(Photo by Photocapy at http://www.flickr.com/photos/photocapy/301093262/; license details there.)