Hernandez v. New York, 500 U.S. 352 (1991) (2024)

Hernandez v. New York (89-7645), 500 U.S. 352 (1991)
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No. 89-7645


[May 28, 1991]

Justice O'Connor, with whom Justice Scalia joins, concurring in the judgment.

I agree with the plurality that we review for clear error the trial court's finding as to discriminatory intent, and agree with its analysis of this issue. I agree also that the finding of no discriminatory intent was not clearly erroneous in this case. I write separately because I believe that the plurality opinion goes farther than it needs to in assessing the constitutionality of the prosecutor's asserted justification for his peremptory strikes.

Upon resolution of the factfinding questions, this case is straightforward. Hernandez asserts an equal protection violation under the rule of Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986). In order to demonstrate such a violation, Hernandez must prove that the prosecutor intentionally discriminated against Hispanic jurors on the basis of their race. The trial court found that the prosecutor did not have such intent, and that determination is not clearly erroneous. Hernandez has failed to meet his burden.

An unwavering line of cases from this Court holds that a violation of the Equal Protection Clause requires state action motivated by discriminatory intent; the disproportionate effects of state action are not sufficient to establish such a violation. In Washington v. Davis, 426 U.S. 229, 239 (1976), we explained that "our cases have not embraced the proposition that a law or other official act, without regard to whether it reflects a racially discriminatory purpose, is unconstitutional solely because it has a racially disproportionate impact." "[A] defendant who alleges an equal protection violation has the burden of proving `the existence of purposeful discrimination.' " McCleskey v. Kemp, 481 U.S. 279, 292 (1987). See also Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Development Corp., 429 U.S. 252, 264-265 (1977); Keyes v. School Dist. No. 1, Denver, Colo., 413 U.S. 189, 198 (1973); Wright v. Rockefeller, 376 U.S. 52, 56-57 (1964).

We have recognized the discriminatory intent requirement explicitly in the context of jury selection. Thus, "[a] purpose to discriminate must be present which may be proven by systematic exclusion of eligible jurymen of the proscribed race or by unequal application of the law to such an extent as to show intentional discrimination." Akins v. Texas, 325 U.S. 398, 403-404 (1945). See also Alexander v. Louisiana, 405 U.S. 625, 628-629 (1972); Whitus v. Georgia, 385 U.S. 545, 549-550 (1967); Norris v. Alabama, 294 U.S. 587, 589 (1935); Neal v. Delaware, 103 U.S. 370, 394 (1881). The point was made clearly in Batson itself: "As in any equal protection case, the `burden is, of course,' on the defendant who alleges discriminatory selection . . . `to prove the existence of purposeful discrimination.' " 476 U. S., at 93, quoting Whitus, supra, at 550.

Consistent with our established equal protection jurisprudence, a peremptory strike will constitute a Batson violation only if the prosecutor struck a juror because of the juror's race. "[T]he Equal Protection Clause forbids the prosecutor to challenge potential jurors solely on account of their race or on the assumption that [Hispanic] jurors as a group will be unable impartially to consider the State's case." Batson, 476 U. S., at 89 (emphasis added). See also Powers v. Ohio, 499 U. S. —, — (1991) (slip op., at 9) ("the Equal Protection Clause prohibits a prosecutor from using the State's peremptory challenges to exclude otherwise qualified and unbiased persons from the petit jury solely by reason of their race"). Batson's requirement of a race-neutral explanation means an explanation other than race.

In Washington v. Davis, supra, we outlined the dangers of a rule that would allow an equal protection violation on a finding of mere disproportionate effect. Such a rule would give rise to an unending stream of constitutional challenges:

"A rule that [state action] designed to serve neutral ends is nevertheless invalid, absent compelling justification, if in practice it benefits or burdens one race more than another would be far reaching and would raise serious questions about, and perhaps invalidate, a whole range of tax, welfare, public service, regulatory, and licensing statutes that may be more burdensome to the poor and to the average black than to the more affluent white." Id., at 248.

In the same way, a rule that disproportionate effect might be sufficient for an equal protection violation in the use of peremptory strikes runs the serious risk of turning voir dire into a full-blown disparate impact trial, with statistical evidence and expert testimony on the discriminatory effect of any particular nonracial classification. In addition to creating unacceptable delays in the trial process, such a practice would be antithetical to the nature and purpose of the peremptory challenge. Absent intentional discrimination violative of the Equal Protection Clause, parties should be free to exercise their peremptory strikes for any reason, or no reason at all. The peremptory challenge is "as Blackstone says, an arbitrary and capricious right; and it must be exercised with full freedom, or it fails of its full purpose." Lewis v. United States, 146 U.S. 370, 378 (1892) (internal quotations omitted).

In this case, the prosecutor's asserted justification for striking certain Hispanic jurors was his uncertainty about the jurors' ability to accept the official translation of trial testimony. App. 3-4. If this truly was the purpose of the strikes, they were not strikes because of race, and therefore did not violate the Equal Protection Clause under Batson. They may have acted like strikes based on race, but they were not based on race. No matter how closely tied or significantly correlated to race the explanation for a peremptory strike may be, the strike does not implicate the Equal Protection Clause unless it is based on race. That is the distinction between disproportionate effect, which is not sufficient to constitute an equal protection violation, and intentional discrimination, which is.

Disproportionate effect may, of course, constitute evidence of intentional discrimination. The trial court may, because of such effect, disbelieve the prosecutor and find that the asserted justification is merely a pretext for intentional race-based discrimination. See Batson, supra, at 93. But if, as in this case, the trial court believes the prosecutor's nonracial justification, and that finding is not clearly erroneous, that is the end of the matter. Batson does not require that a prosecutor justify a jury strike at the level of a for-cause challenge. It also does not require that the justification be unrelated to race. Batson requires only that the prosecutor's reason for striking a juror not be the juror's race.

Hernandez v. New York, 500 U.S. 352 (1991) (2024)
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