Hobbs Decision a Good Start To Ending NC’s Legacy Of Race Discrimination In Jury Selection

By David C. Weiss

Last week, on May 1, the N.C. Supreme Court issued an important decision in State v. Hobbs, No. 263PA18, clarifying several aspects of North Carolina case law that have long been barriers to relief under Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), the landmark decision that established the modern framework for addressing race discrimination in jury selection.

The court granted review of the case after Hobbs pointed out in his petition for discretionary review that North Carolina has a serious, unaddressed problem of denying black citizens the right to serve on juries. Two different comprehensive, statewide studies have shown that black citizens are excluded from both capital and non-capital juries at twice the rate as white citizens. Another recent study revealed that North Carolina has the only appellate court system in the South that has never, in the three decades since Batson was decided, recognized an instance of discrimination against a juror of color.

Observers on all sides have been concerned about this problem. Fair and Just Prosecution, a national network of elected prosecutors, called on the North Carolina Supreme Court “to stand up against the entrenched practice of excluding people of color from juries.” In Hobbs, Fair and Just Prosecution, joined by NCAJ and an array of civil rights groups, filed an amicus brief urging the court to address the issue. Nor is this broad-based concern limited to North Carolina. Just last year, Justice Kavanaugh of the U.S. Supreme Court authored an opinion in Flowers v. Mississippi, calling on lower courts to enforce Batson more vigorously.

In Hobbs, our court applied U.S. Supreme Court precedent to clarify the legal framework governing an objection that a peremptory strike is based on race, including that:

  • At the prima facie stage of analysis, the objecting party need only raise an inference of discrimination, and does not bear any burden of persuasion.
  • When historical evidence of discrimination is raised, or evidence of disparate treatment of similar black and white jurors, courts are required to explain how they weighed that evidence in their decisions.
  • A Batson objection may not be overruled simply because the reason given for striking the juror was accepted as race-neutral in other cases. Instead, courts must carefully assess those reasons in the context of each individual case.
  • A Batson violation does not require a showing that race was the sole reason for the strike. The moving party need only prove race was one significant factor in the strike decision.
  • The ultimate standard of proof of a Batson violation is a preponderance of the evidence. The moving party need only show it was more likely than not that the strike was the product of purposeful discrimination.

The court remanded Hobbs to the trial court for an additional Batson hearing. James Coleman – Duke Law professor, NCAJ member, and counsel on the Hobbs amicus brief – noted in the wake of the decision that it is “a good starting point in addressing North Carolina’s shameful record of denying African-Americans their civil right to serve on juries.”

However, there is still much to be done. Because the court did not reach the question of whether any discrimination occurred in Hobbs, it did not bring an end to North Carolina’s unfortunate distinction as the only state in the South whose appellate courts have never acknowledged discrimination against a juror of color.

Fortunately, the N.C. Supreme Court is still considering a number of important cases that will address legal protections for the right of all citizens to serve on juries. In the Racial Justice Act cases, the court will address whether death row prisoners who submitted evidence of race discrimination in the selection of their juries will have a chance to present that evidence in court. In State v. Clegg, No. 101PA15-3, the court will decide what to do in a case where a prosecutor removed a black juror, but when asked his reasons for excluding that person, was unable to identify any verifiable, race-neutral explanation. In State v. Bell, No. 86A02-2, the court is considering whether to grant review of a capital case in which the prosecutor admitted removing a potential female juror because he was looking for a man to serve as foreperson of the jury.

As it did in Hobbs, NCAJ hopes the court will continue to address these important cases in a deliberate and thoughtful fashion, in order to ensure that individuals charged with crimes are judged by a jury of their peers, and that the people’s fundamental civil right to serve on juries is fully protected from discrimination.

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