California prosecutors are likely to face more questions before they can exclude blacks and other minorities from juries, judging from the arguments yesterday before the U.S. Supreme Court reported by the Los Angeles Times. At issue is a 19-year-old rule that forbids using race as a reason to keep people off a jury. Most states tell judges to question prosecutors whenever there appears to be racial bias in jury selection; California courts say prosecutors should be questioned only when there is a “strong likelihood” of racial bias.
A lawyer for a child murderer told the justices that California’s rule allowed racial bias to go unchallenged and undetected. “We ask this court to bring California into the mainstream,” he said. Most justices seemed inclined to do just that. In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled in Batson vs. Kentucky that judges should challenge prosecutors to explain themselves whenever there was prima facie evidence of racial bias in jury selection. “All that is required under Batson,” Justice Anthony Kennedy said, “is a reason to inquire,” not the “strong likelihood” of bias required by the California courts.