Johnson v. California

Decision Date13 June 2005
Docket NumberNo. 04-6964.,04-6964.
Citation162 L. Ed. 2d 129,545 U.S. 162,125 S. Ct. 2410
PartiesJOHNSON v. CALIFORNIA
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Petitioner Johnson, a black man, was convicted in a California state court of assaulting and murdering a white child. During jury selection, a number of prospective jurors were removed for cause until 43 eligible jurors remained, three of whom were black. The prosecutor used 3 of his 12 peremptory challenges to remove the prospective black jurors, resulting in an all-white jury. Defense counsel objected to those strikes on the ground that they were unconstitutionally based on race. The trial judge did not ask the prosecutor to explain his strikes, but instead simply found that petitioner had failed to establish a prima facie case of purposeful discrimination under the governing state precedent, People v. Wheeler, which required a showing of a strong likelihood that the exercise of peremptory challenges was based on group bias. The judge explained that, although the case was close, her review of the record convinced her that the prosecutor's strikes could be justified by race-neutral reasons. The California Court of Appeal set aside the conviction, but the State Supreme Court reinstated it, stressing that Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U. S. 79, permits state courts to establish the standards used to evaluate the sufficiency of prima facie cases of purposeful discrimination in jury selection. Reviewing Batson, Wheeler, and their progeny, the court concluded that Wheeler's "strong likelihood" standard is entirely consistent with Batson. Under Batson, the court held, a state court may require the objector to present not merely enough evidence to permit an inference that discrimination has occurred, but sufficiently strong evidence to establish that the challenges, if not explained, were more likely than not based on race. Applying that standard, the court acknowledged that the exclusion of all three black prospective jurors looked suspicious, but deferred to the trial judge's ruling.

Held: California's "more likely than not" standard is an inappropriate yardstick by which to measure the sufficiency of a prima facie case of purposeful discrimination in jury selection. This narrow but important issue concerns the scope of the first of three steps Batson enumerated: (1) Once the defendant has made out a prima facie case and (2) the State has satisfied its burden to offer permissible race-neutral justifications for the strikes, e. g., 476 U. S., at 94, then (3) the trial court must decide whether the defendant has proved purposeful racial discrimination Purkett v. Elem, 514 U. S. 765 (per curiam). Batson does not permit California to require at step one that the objector show that it is more likely than not the other party's peremptory challenges, if unexplained, were based on impermissible group bias. The Batson Court held that a prima facie case can be made out by offering a wide variety of evidence, so long as the sum of the proffered facts gives "rise to an inference of discriminatory purpose." 476 U. S., at 94. The Court explained that to establish a prima facie case, the defendant must show that his membership in a cognizable racial group, the prosecutor's exercise of peremptory challenges to remove members of that group, the indisputable fact that such challenges permit those inclined to discriminate to do so, and any other relevant circumstances raise an inference that the prosecutor excluded venire members on account of race. Id., at 96. The Court assumed that the trial judge would have the benefit of all relevant circumstances, including the prosecutor's explanation, before deciding whether it was more likely than not that the peremptory challenge was improperly motivated. The Court did not intend the first step to be so onerous that a defendant would have to persuade the judge — on the basis of all the facts, some of which are impossible for the defendant to know with certainty — that the challenge was more likely than not the product of purposeful discrimination. Instead, a defendant satisfies Batson's first step requirements by producing evidence sufficient to permit the trial judge to draw an inference that discrimination has occurred. The facts of this case illustrate that California's standard is at odds with the prima facie inquiry mandated by Batson. The permissible inferences of discrimination, which caused the trial judge to comment that the case was close and the California Supreme Court to acknowledge that it was suspicious that all three black prospective jurors were removed, were sufficient to establish a prima facie case. Pp. 168-173.

Reversed and remanded.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C. J., and O'CONNOR, SCALIA, KENNEDY, SOUTER, GINSBURG, and BREYER, JJ., joined. BREYER, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 173. THOMAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 173.

CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEAL OF CALIFORNIA, FIRST APPELLATE DISTRICT

Stephen B. Bedrick, by appointment of the Court, 543 U. S. 1143, argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs was Eric Schnapper.

Seth K. Schalit, Supervising Deputy Attorney General of California, argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief were Bill Lockyer, Attorney General, Robert R. Anderson, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Gerald A. Engler, Senior Assistant Attorney General, and Laurence K. Sullivan, Supervising Deputy Attorney General.*

JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Supreme Court of California and the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit have provided conflicting answers to the following question: "Whether to establish a prima facie case under Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U. S. 79 (1986), the objector must show that it is more likely than not that the other party's peremptory challenges, if unexplained, were based on impermissible group bias?" Pet. for Cert. i. Because both of those courts regularly review the validity of convictions obtained in California criminal trials, respondent, the State of California, agreed to petitioner's request that we grant certiorari and resolve the conflict. We agree with the Ninth Circuit that the question presented must be answered in the negative, and accordingly reverse the judgment of the California Supreme Court.

I

Petitioner Jay Shawn Johnson, a black male, was convicted in a California trial court of second-degree murder and assault on a white 19-month-old child, resulting in death. During jury selection, a number of prospective jurors were removed for cause until 43 eligible jurors remained, 3 of whom were black. The prosecutor used 3 of his 12 peremptory challenges to remove the black prospective jurors. The resulting jury, including alternates, was all white.

After the prosecutor exercised the second of his three peremptory challenges against the prospective black jurors, defense counsel objected on the ground that the challenge was unconstitutionally based on race under both the California and United States Constitutions. People v. Johnson, 30 Cal. 4th 1302, 1307, 71 P. 3d 270, 272-273 (2003).1 Defense counsel alleged that the prosecutor "had no apparent reason to challenge this prospective juror `other than [her] racial identity.'" Ibid. (alteration in original). The trial judge did not ask the prosecutor to explain the rationale for his strikes. Instead, the judge simply found that petitioner had failed to establish a prima facie case under the governing state precedent, People v. Wheeler, 22 Cal. 3d 258, 583 P. 2d 748 (1978), reasoning "`that there's not been shown a strong likelihood that the exercise of the peremptory challenges were based upon a group rather than an individual basis,'" 30 Cal. 4th, at 1307, 71 P. 3d, at 272 (emphasis added). The judge did, however, warn the prosecutor that "`we are very close.'" People v. Johnson, 105 Cal. Rptr. 2d 727, 729 (Ct. App. 2001).

Defense counsel made an additional motion the next day when the prosecutor struck the final remaining prospective black juror. 30 Cal. 4th, at 1307, 71 P. 3d, at 272. Counsel argued that the prosecutor's decision to challenge all of the prospective black jurors constituted a "systematic attempt to exclude African-Americans from the jury panel." 105 Cal. Rptr. 2d, at 729. The trial judge still did not seek an explanation from the prosecutor. Instead, she explained that her own examination of the record had convinced her that the prosecutor's strikes could be justified by race-neutral reasons. Specifically, the judge opined that the black venire members had offered equivocal or confused answers in their written questionnaires. 30 Cal. 4th, at 1307-1308, 71 P. 3d, at 272-273. Despite the fact that "`the Court would not grant the challenges for cause, there were answers . . . at least on the questionnaires themselves [such] that the Court felt that there was sufficient basis'" for the strikes. Id., at 1308, 71 P. 3d, at 273 (brackets added). Therefore, even considering that all of the prospective black jurors had been stricken from the pool, the judge determined that petitioner had failed to establish a prima facie case.

The California Court of Appeal set aside the conviction. People v. Johnson, 105 Cal. Rptr. 2d 727 (2001). Over the dissent of one judge, the majority ruled that the trial judge had erred by requiring petitioner to establish a "strong likelihood" that the peremptory strikes had been impermissibly based on race. Instead, the trial judge should have only required petitioner to proffer enough evidence to support an "inference" of discrimination.2 The Court of Appeal's holding relied on decisions of this Court, prior California case law, and the decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Wade v. Terhune, 202 F. 3d 1190 (2000). Applying the proper "reasonable inference" standard, the majority concluded that petitioner had...

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