This Landmark Cases and the Constitution eLesson spotlights the 1994 Supreme Court case J.E.B. v. Alabama. In this case, the Court struck down the use of preemptory challenges to remove jurors on the basis of sex as a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. Unlike some earlier jury cases which centered on defendants’ right to a fair trial, in this case the Court held that individuals have the right not to be excluded a jury. Although the case involved a trial in which men had been excluded from juries, the Court’s ruling took into account the historic exclusion of women from juries and therefore it is our focus this Women’s History Month.
When lawyers empanel a jury for a trial, they ask questions of potential jurors. This process is called “voir dire.” The purpose of voir dire is to uncover biases or prejudices that lawyers believe will cause potential jurors to be biased against their client. If they identify such prejudices, lawyers can ask to have a potential juror removed “for cause.” Lawyers can also use what are called “preemptory challenges” to remove jurors for no stated reason. In the early 1990s, an Alabama woman brought a complaint for financial support against a man (J.E.B.) she claimed was the father of her child. When J.E.B.’s trial began, the state of Alabama believed that women would make more sympathetic jurors and used preemptory challenges to remove men the jury. Alabama was successful in empanelling an all-female jury, and the jury returned a verdict for the mother. J.E.B. challenged the systematic exclusion of males from his jury and his case eventually went to the Supreme Court The Supreme Court had previously ruled that using race as a basis for preemptory challenges violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, which says in part, “no state shall… deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” In J.E.B. v. Alabama, the Court sided with J.E.B. and held (6-3) that exclusion of jurors on the basis of sex was also unconstitutional. The Court’s ruling applied not only to state actors (prosecutors) but also to the use of preemptory challenges by criminal defendants as well as parties in civil lawsuits. Alabama would have to give J.E.B. a new trial. The Court reasoned, “Parties still may remove jurors whom they feel might be less acceptable than others on the panel; gender simply may not serve as a proxy for bias. … Equal opportunity to participate in the fair administration of justice is fundamental to our democratic system. … When persons are excluded from participation in our democratic processes solely because of race or gender, this promise of equality dims, and the integrity of our judicial system is jeopardized.”
Comprehension and Critical Thinking Questions
- What were the facts of the case in J.E.B. v. Alabama (1994)?
- Why do you think preemptory challenges exist? How might they further the pursuit of justice?
- How did the Supreme Court rule?
- Should the Court have applied the ruling to non-state actors? For example, should a battered wife accused of killing her abusive husband be able to try to exclude men from her jury? Why or why not?
- One concurring Justice argued that, “In this regard, it is important to recognize that a juror sits not as a representative of a racial or sexual group but as an individual citizen. … the Constitution guarantees a right only to an impartial jury, not to a jury composed of members of a particular race or gender.” Why do you think this Justice made this point? Is this an important distinction?