New York Court of Appeals Holds That Skin Color Is a Cognizable Class Under Batson Analysis

–by Robert Carpenter

Citation: People v. Bridgeforth, 2016 N.Y. Lexis 3859 (Dec. 22, 2016) (internal citations omitted).

Abstract: In a matter of first impression, the New York Court of Appeals held that skin color was a cognizable class for Batson based challenges to peremptory strikes.

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On December 22, 2016, the New York Court of Appeals held that a trial court had committed reversible error by not seating a juror. In so doing, the Court established skin color as a classification upon which a challenge to peremptory strikes could be successfully based.

The defendant in the case was charged with multiple counts of robbery. During voir dire, the prosecutor used peremptory challenges to exclude multiple potential jurors. Defense counsel alleged that the prosecutor lacked valid reasons for the strikes, other than the fact that all those excluded were “dark-skinned women.” The record indicates that the excluded group included African-American women, Guyanese women, and “a dark complexioned Indian-American woman.” The prosecutor immediately supplied reasons for the challenges for all those excluded except for the Indian-American woman. Even with no reason for the challenge, the Indian-American woman was not seated as a juror.

The Court began by reviewing how New York analyzes challenges to peremptory strikes. The Court noted that New York has adopted the framework used by the Supreme Court case Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986). The Batson framework requires the movant to establish a prima facie case of peremptory strikes being used to discriminate. After that the non-moving party must put forth a non-discriminatory reason for the strike. Finally, the Court decides whether the stated reason was legitimate or a pretext for discrimination.

The Court then considered whether skin color implicated equal protection concerns. For guidance, the Court looked to the New York Constitution’s equal protection clause, which prevents discrimination against “race, color, creed or religion.” The Court concluded that the distinction between “race” and “color” meant that the two concepts were unique. The Court also cited several academic articles that had found the existence of “colorism.” With all of these factors in mind, the Court found that Batson should be extended to include challenges based on skin color.

After finding skin color to be a cognizable classification for Batson, the Court noted that this decision did not conflict with past decisions that found Batson challenges could not be based on the exclusion of minorities. The Court stated that skin color required only a narrow showing while minority status could include a varied group of people.

In applying the new Batson classification to the case, the Court first held that the trial court did not reach an ultimate conclusion on the prima facie case of discrimination necessary under Batson analysis. This meant that the issue was not moot and reviewable on appeal. The Court then concluded that the defendant had successfully established a prima facie case of discrimination based on skin color.

The Court then considered whether the prosecutor had put forth a non-discriminatory reason for the strike. The Court cited several cases showing that failing to recall a non-discriminatory reason is insufficient under the second stage of Batson analysis. After finding that the defendant had succeeded in establishing a prima facie case of discrimination and that the prosecutor had failed to put forth a non-discriminatory reason, the Court held that the trial court committed reversible error by not seating the juror.

One Judge concurred that the trial court committed reversible error by not seating the juror but believed the court erred in establishing a new Batson classification.

The concurring judge argued that the majority had misapplied New York mootness doctrine. Where the majority concluded that the issue of Batson analysis was not moot because the trial judge never made a final ruling on the classification, the concurring judge disagreed. The judge noted that the prosecutor articulated non-discriminatory reasons for four of the five excluded persons before the trial judge made a ruling on the prima facie case of discrimination. The judge concluded that the immediate response by the prosecutor mooted the issue. The judge would have held that it was error to exclude the one juror for which no reason was articulated but would not have addressed the Batson argument.

The concurring judge also criticized the majority’s conclusion that the judge did not make an ultimate decision. The judge argued that by not seating the juror, the judge made an ultimate decision even if it was not stated on the record.

Posted in Constitutional Law, Criminal Law, Legal Pulse, Trial Practice