Batson v. Kentucky (1986) 476 U.S. 79

Fundamental Cases in Criminal Justice by Adam J. McKee

Part III: Courts and Sentencing

The following case has been heavily edited and abridged.  The idea is to make it more readable.  As such, it should not be relied upon as binding authority.

This case requires us to reexamine that portion of Swain v. Alabama, concerning the evidentiary burden placed on a criminal defendant who claims that he has been denied equal protection through the State’s use of peremptory challenges to exclude members of his race from the petit jury.


Petitioner, a black man, was indicted in Kentucky on charges of second-degree burglary and receipt of stolen goods. On the first day of trial in Jefferson Circuit Court, the judge conducted voir dire examination of the venire, excused certain jurors for cause, and permitted the parties to exercise peremptory challenges. The prosecutor used his peremptory challenges to strike all four black persons on the venire, and a jury composed only of white persons was selected. Defense counsel moved to discharge the jury before it was sworn on the ground that the prosecutor’s removal of the black veniremen violated petitioner’s rights under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to a jury drawn from a cross section of the community, and under the Fourteenth Amendment to equal protection of the laws. Counsel requested a hearing on his motion. Without expressly ruling on the request for a hearing, the trial judge observed that the parties were entitled to use their peremptory challenges to “strike anybody they want to.” The judge then denied petitioner’s motion, reasoning that the cross-section requirement applies only to selection of the venire and not to selection of the petit jury itself.

The jury convicted petitioner on both counts. On appeal to the Supreme Court of Kentucky, petitioner pressed, among other claims, the argument concerning the prosecutor’s use of peremptory challenges. Conceding that Swain v. Alabama apparently foreclosed an equal protection claim based solely on the prosecutor’s conduct in this case, petitioner urged the court to follow decisions of other and to hold that such conduct violated his rights under the Sixth Amendment and § 11 of the Kentucky Constitution to a jury drawn from a cross section of the community.

 Petitioner also contended that the facts showed that the prosecutor had engaged in a “pattern” of discriminatory challenges in this case and established an equal protection violation under Swain. The Supreme Court of Kentucky affirmed. In a single paragraph, the court declined petitioner’s invitation to adopt the reasoning of People v. Wheeler and Commonwealth v. Soares. The court observed that it recently had reaffirmed its reliance on Swain, and had held that a defendant alleging lack of a fair cross section must demonstrate systematic exclusion of a group of jurors from the venire. We granted certiorari, and now reverse.


 In Swain v. Alabama, this Court recognized that a “State’s purposeful or deliberate denial to Negroes on account of race of participation as jurors in the administration of justice violates the Equal Protection Clause.” This principle has been “consistently and repeatedly” reaffirmed in numerous decisions of this Court both preceding and following Swain.


 More than a century ago, the Court decided that the State denies a black defendant equal protection of the laws when it puts him on trial before a jury from which members of his race have been purposefully excluded. That decision laid the foundation for the Court’s unceasing efforts to eradicate racial discrimination in the procedures used to select the venire from which individual jurors are drawn. In Strauder, the Court explained that the central concern of the recently ratified Fourteenth Amendment was to put an end to governmental discrimination on account of race. Exclusion of black citizens from service as jurors constitutes a primary example of the evil the Fourteenth Amendment was designed to cure.

 In holding that racial discrimination in jury selection offends the Equal Protection Clause, the Court in Strauder recognized, however, that a defendant has no right to a “petit jury composed in whole or in part of persons of his own race.” “The number of our races and nationalities stands in the way of evolution of such a conception” of the demand of equal protection. But the defendant does have the right to be tried by a jury whose members are selected pursuant to non-discriminatory criteria. The Equal Protection Clause guarantees the defendant that the State will not exclude members of his race from the jury venire on account of race, or on the false assumption that members of his race as a group are not qualified to serve as jurors.

 Purposeful racial discrimination in selection of the venire violates a defendant’s right to equal protection because it denies him the protection that a trial by jury is intended to secure. “The very idea of a jury is a body . . . composed of the peers or equals of the person whose rights it is selected or summoned to determine; that is, of his neighbors, fellows, associates, persons having the same legal status in society as that which he holds.” The petit jury has occupied a central position in our system of justice by safeguarding a person accused of crime against the arbitrary exercise of power by prosecutor or judge. Those on the venire must be “indifferently chosen,” to secure the defendant’s right under the Fourteenth Amendment to “protection of life and liberty against race or color prejudice.”

 Racial discrimination in selection of jurors harms not only the accused whose life or liberty they are summoned to try. Competence to serve as a juror ultimately depends on an assessment of individual qualifications and ability impartially to consider evidence presented at a trial. A person’s race simply “is unrelated to his fitness as a juror.” As long ago as Strauder, therefore, the Court recognized that by denying a person participation in jury service on account of his race, the State unconstitutionally discriminated against the excluded juror.

 The harm from discriminatory jury selection extends beyond that inflicted on the defendant and the excluded juror to touch the entire community. Selection procedures that purposefully exclude black persons from juries undermine public confidence in the fairness of our system of justice. Discrimination within the judicial system is most pernicious because it is “a stimulant to that race prejudice which is an impediment to securing to [black citizens] that equal justice which the law aims to secure to all others.”


  In Strauder, the Court invalidated a state statute that provided that only white men could serve as jurors. We can be confident that no State now has such a law. The Constitution requires, however, that we look beyond the face of the statute defining juror qualifications and also consider challenged selection practices to afford “protection against action of the State through its administrative officers in effecting the prohibited discrimination.” Thus, the Court has found a denial of equal protection where the procedures implementing a neutral statute operated to exclude persons from the venire on racial grounds, and has made clear that the Constitution prohibits all forms of purposeful racial discrimination in selection of jurors. While decisions of this Court have been concerned largely with discrimination during selection of the venire, the principles announced there also forbid discrimination on account of race in selection of the petit jury. Since the Fourteenth Amendment protects an accused throughout the proceedings bringing him to justice, the State may not draw up its jury lists pursuant to neutral procedures but then resort to discrimination at “other stages in the selection process.”

Accordingly, the component of the jury selection process at issue here, the State’s privilege to strike individual jurors through peremptory challenges, is subject to the commands of the Equal Protection Clause. Although a prosecutor ordinarily is entitled to exercise permitted peremptory challenges “for any reason at all, as long as that reason is related to his view concerning the outcome” of the case to be tried, the Equal Protection Clause forbids the prosecutor to challenge potential jurors solely on account of their race or on the assumption that black jurors as a group will be unable impartially to consider the State’s case against a black defendant.


The principles announced in Strauder never have been questioned in any subsequent decision of this Court. Rather, the Court has been called upon repeatedly to review the application of those principles to particular facts. A recurring question in these cases, as in any case alleging a violation of the Equal Protection Clause, was whether the defendant had met his burden of proving purposeful discrimination on the part of the State. That question also was at the heart of the portion of Swain v. Alabama we reexamine today.


Swain required the Court to decide, among other issues, whether a black defendant was denied equal protection by the State’s exercise of peremptory challenges to exclude members of his race from the petit jury. The record in Swain showed that the prosecutor had used the State’s peremptory challenges to strike the six black persons included on the petit jury venire. While rejecting the defendant’s claim for failure to prove purposeful discrimination, the Court nonetheless indicated that the Equal Protection Clause placed some limits on the State’s exercise of peremptory challenges.

The Court sought to accommodate the prosecutor’s historical privilege of peremptory challenge free of judicial control and the constitutional prohibition on exclusion of persons from jury service on account of race. While the Constitution does not confer a right to peremptory challenges, those challenges traditionally have been viewed as one means of assuring the selection of a qualified and unbiased jury. To preserve the peremptory nature of the prosecutor’s challenge, the Court in Swain declined to scrutinize his actions in a particular case by relying on a presumption that he properly exercised the State’s challenges.

The Court went on to observe, however, that a State may not exercise its challenges in contravention of the Equal Protection Clause. It was impermissible for a prosecutor to use his challenges to exclude blacks from the jury “for reasons wholly unrelated to the outcome of the particular case on trial” or to deny to blacks “the same right and opportunity to participate in the administration of justice enjoyed by the white population.” Accordingly, a black defendant could make out a prima facie case of purposeful discrimination on proof that the peremptory challenge system was “being perverted” in that manner.

For example, an inference of purposeful discrimination would be raised on evidence that a prosecutor, “in case after case, whatever the circumstances, whatever the crime and whoever the defendant or the victim may be, is responsible for the removal of Negroes who have been selected as qualified jurors by the jury commissioners and who have survived challenges for cause, with the result that no Negroes ever serve on petit juries.” Evidence offered by the defendant in Swain did not meet that standard. While the defendant showed that prosecutors in the jurisdiction had exercised their strikes to exclude blacks from the jury, he offered no proof of the circumstances under which prosecutors were responsible for striking black jurors beyond the facts of his own case.

A number of lower courts following the teaching of Swain reasoned that proof of repeated striking of blacks over a number of cases was necessary to establish a violation of the Equal Protection Clause. Since this interpretation of Swain has placed on defendants a crippling burden of proof, prosecutors’ peremptory challenges are now largely immune from constitutional scrutiny. For reasons that follow, we reject this evidentiary formulation as inconsistent with standards that have been developed since Swain for assessing a prima facie case under the Equal Protection Clause.


Since the decision in Swain, we have explained that our cases concerning selection of the venire reflect the general equal protection principle that the “invidious quality” of governmental action claimed to be racially discriminatory “must ultimately be traced to a racially discriminatory purpose.” As in any equal protection case, the “burden is, of course,” on the defendant who alleges discriminatory selection of the venire “to prove the existence of purposeful discrimination.” In deciding if the defendant has carried his burden of persuasion, a court must undertake “a sensitive inquiry into such circumstantial and direct evidence of intent as may be available.” Circumstantial evidence of invidious intent may include proof of disproportionate impact. We have observed that under some circumstances proof of discriminatory impact “may for all practical purposes demonstrate unconstitutionality because in various circumstances the discrimination is very difficult to explain on nonracial grounds.” For example, “total or seriously disproportionate exclusion of Negroes from jury venires,”…”is itself such an ‘unequal application of the law . . . as to show intentional discrimination.'”

Moreover, since Swain, we have recognized that a black defendant alleging that members of his race have been impermissibly excluded from the venire may make out a prima facie case of purposeful discrimination by showing that the totality of the relevant facts gives rise to an inference of discriminatory purpose. Once the defendant makes the requisite showing, the burden shifts to the State to explain adequately the racial exclusion. The State cannot meet this burden on mere general assertions that its officials did not discriminate or that they properly performed their official duties. Rather, the State must demonstrate that “permissible racially neutral selection criteria and procedures have produced the monochromatic result.”

The showing necessary to establish a prima facie case of purposeful discrimination in selection of the venire may be discerned in this Court’s decisions. The defendant initially must show that he is a member of a racial group capable of being singled out for differential treatment. In combination with that evidence, a defendant may then make a prima facie case by proving that in the particular jurisdiction members of his race have not been summoned for jury service over an extended period of time. Proof of systematic exclusion from the venire raises an inference of purposeful discrimination because the “result bespeaks discrimination.”

Since the ultimate issue is whether the State has discriminated in selecting the defendant’s venire, however, the defendant may establish a prima facie case “in other ways than by evidence of long-continued unexplained absence” of members of his race “from many panels.” In cases involving the venire, this Court has found a prima facie case on proof that members of the defendant’s race were substantially underrepresented on the venire from which his jury was drawn, and that the venire was selected under a practice providing “the opportunity for discrimination.” This combination of factors raises the necessary inference of purposeful discrimination because the Court has declined to attribute to chance the absence of black citizens on a particular jury array where the selection mechanism is subject to abuse. When circumstances suggest the need, the trial court must undertake a “factual inquiry” that “takes into account all possible explanatory factors” in the particular case.

Thus, since the decision in Swain, this Court has recognized that a defendant may make a prima facie showing of purposeful racial discrimination in selection of the venire by relying solely on the facts concerning its selection in his case. These decisions are in accordance with the proposition, articulated in Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Development Corp., that “a consistent pattern of official racial discrimination” is not “a necessary predicate to a violation of the Equal Protection Clause. A single invidiously discriminatory governmental act” is not “immunized by the absence of such discrimination in the making of other comparable decisions.” For evidentiary requirements to dictate that “several must suffer discrimination” before one could object would be inconsistent with the promise of equal protection to all.


The standards for assessing a prima facie case in the context of discriminatory selection of the venire have been fully articulated since Swain. These principles support our conclusion that a defendant may establish a prima facie case of purposeful discrimination in selection of the petit jury solely on evidence concerning the prosecutor’s exercise of peremptory challenges at the defendant’s trial. To establish such a case, the defendant first must show that he is a member of a cognizable racial group, and that the prosecutor has exercised peremptory challenges to remove from the venire members of the defendant’s race. Second, the defendant is entitled to rely on the fact, as to which there can be no dispute, that peremptory challenges constitute a jury selection practice that permits “those to discriminate who are of a mind to discriminate.” Finally, the defendant must show that these facts and any other relevant circumstances raise an inference that the prosecutor used that practice to exclude the veniremen from the petit jury on account of their race. This combination of factors in the empaneling of the petit jury, as in the selection of the venire, raises the necessary inference of purposeful discrimination.

In deciding whether the defendant has made the requisite showing, the trial court should consider all relevant circumstances. For example, a “pattern” of strikes against black jurors included in the particular venire might give rise to an inference of discrimination. Similarly, the prosecutor’s questions and statements during voir dire examination and in exercising his challenges may support or refute an inference of discriminatory purpose. These examples are merely illustrative. We have confidence that trial judges, experienced in supervising voir dire, will be able to decide if the circumstances concerning the prosecutor’s use of peremptory challenges creates a prima facie case of discrimination against black jurors.

Once the defendant makes a prima facie showing, the burden shifts to the State to come forward with a neutral explanation for challenging black jurors. Though this requirement imposes a limitation in some cases on the full peremptory character of the historic challenge, we emphasize that the prosecutor’s explanation need not rise to the level justifying exercise of a challenge for cause. But the prosecutor may not rebut the defendant’s prima facie case of discrimination by stating merely that he challenged jurors of the defendant’s race on the assumption—or his intuitive judgment—that they would be partial to the defendant because of their shared race. Just as the Equal Protection Clause forbids the States to exclude black persons from the venire on the assumption that blacks as a group are unqualified to serve as jurors, so it forbids the States to strike black veniremen on the assumption that they will be biased in a particular case simply because the defendant is black.

The core guarantee of equal protection, ensuring citizens that their State will not discriminate on account of race, would be meaningless were we to approve the exclusion of jurors on the basis of such assumptions, which arise solely from the jurors’ race. Nor may the prosecutor rebut the defendant’s case merely by denying that he had a discriminatory motive or “[affirming] [his] good faith in making individual selections.” If these general assertions were accepted as rebutting a defendant’s prima facie case, the Equal Protection Clause “would be but a vain and illusory requirement.” The prosecutor therefore must articulate a neutral explanation related to the particular case to be tried. The trial court then will have the duty to determine if the defendant has established purposeful discrimination.


The State contends that our holding will eviscerate the fair trial values served by the peremptory challenge. Conceding that the Constitution does not guarantee a right to peremptory challenges and that Swain did state that their use ultimately is subject to the strictures of equal protection, the State argues that the privilege of unfettered exercise of the challenge is of vital importance to the criminal justice system.

While we recognize, of course, that the peremptory challenge occupies an important position in our trial procedures, we do not agree that our decision today will undermine the contribution the challenge generally makes to the administration of justice. The reality of practice, amply reflected in many state- and federal-court opinions, shows that the challenge may be, and unfortunately at times has been, used to discriminate against black jurors. By requiring trial courts to be sensitive to the racially discriminatory use of peremptory challenges, our decision enforces the mandate of equal protection and furthers the ends of justice. In view of the heterogeneous population of our Nation, public respect for our criminal justice system and the rule of law will be strengthened if we ensure that no citizen is disqualified from jury service because of his race.

Nor are we persuaded by the State’s suggestion that our holding will create serious administrative difficulties. In those States applying a version of the evidentiary standard we recognize today, courts have not experienced serious administrative burdens, and the peremptory challenge system has survived. We decline, however, to formulate particular procedures to be followed upon a defendant’s timely objection to a prosecutor’s challenges.


In this case, petitioner made a timely objection to the prosecutor’s removal of all black persons on the venire. Because the trial court flatly rejected the objection without requiring the prosecutor to give an explanation for his action, we remand this case for further proceedings. If the trial court decides that the facts establish, prima facie, purposeful discrimination and the prosecutor does not come forward with a neutral explanation for his action, our precedents require that petitioner’s conviction be reversed.

It is so ordered.

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Last Modified: 04/30/2021


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