Arizona’s state Supreme Court has announced a policy change to improve juror diversity and reduce racial bias in the legal system. The state will eliminate peremptory challenges, the practice that allows lawyers to remove jurors from a case without justification.
In both criminal and civil jury trials, the court assembles a panel of jurors larger than the number needed. Lawyers from both sides can remove jurors “for cause,” meaning they have a conflict of interest in the case such as being related to one of the parties involved. Additionally, in many states, lawyers are also granted peremptory challenges, in which they can remove jurors arbitrarily.
As reported by Vox, this practice leads to the disproportionate dismissal of jurors of color, and “multiple studies suggest that peremptory strikes play a major role in producing juries that are whiter than the population as a whole.”
Although Batson v. Kentucky (1986) set constitutional limits on peremptory challenges, determining that lawyers cannot remove a juror based on race, Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote a concurring opinion arguing that ending racial discrimination in jury selection would be far more feasible with the complete removal of peremptory challenges. His opinion was based on a study of prosecutions in Dallas which found that “the chance of a qualified black sitting on a jury was 1 in 10, compared to 1 in 2 for a white.”
In addition to these juror dismissals, other factors contribute to a lack of diversity on juries. One big factor is that racial minorities are less likely to appear on voter registration lists and vehicle registration lists, which are both used to send jury summons. Although some critics argue that the removal of peremptory challenges eliminates lawyers’ ability to remove jurors who legitimately appear to show signs of bias, evidence of dismissal of jurors based on long hair, style choice, and facial hair demonstrates that peremptory challenge rights are all too often abused to achieve a desired legal outcome.
Arizona will join the legal systems of Great Britain and Canada which abolished peremptory challenges in 1988 and 2019 respectively.