Whether a court's decision in wrongfully denying a peremptory challenge requires an automatic reversal of the related conviction.
This case concerns the effect of an erroneous denial of a criminal defendant's peremptory challenge to a prospective juror who was later seated. Defendant Rivera exercised a peremptory challenge to exclude Ms. Gomez, who worked administratively in a hospital known for treating gunshot victims. The trial judge denied the peremptory challenge, claiming a Batson violation. Ms. Gomez was seated on the jury, which then convicted Rivera of first degree murder in a gang related shooting. The Supreme Court of Illinois held that the judge committed harmless-error in denying this peremptory challenge. Upon appeal before the Supreme Court, Rivera argues that the erroneous denial of a peremptory challenge necessitates automatic reversal "because it undermines the trial structure for preserving the constitutional right to due process and an impartial jury." The State of Illinois, on the other hand, argues that there has been no constitutional violation, and that state law should determine the effect of an erroneous denial of a peremptory challenge on the verdict.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Does the erroneous denial of a criminal defendant's peremptory challenge that resulted in the challenged juror being seated require automatic reversal of a conviction because it undermines the trial structure for preserving the constitutional right to due process and an impartial jury?
In 1998, sixteen-year old Marcus Lee was fatally shot. See Brief for Respondent, Illinois at 1. Respondent the State of Illinois ("the State") charged Petitioner Michael Rivera with first degree murder. See id. The State alleged that Rivera, an alleged gang enforcer, murdered Lee because of an erroneous belief that Lee belonged to a rival gang. See Brief for Petitioner, Michael Rivera at 3.
On August 7, 2000, jury selection for Rivera's trial commenced in the Circuit Court of Cook County. See Brief for Petitioner at 3. The process of choosing the jury proceeded with the trial court first questioning each prospective juror, identifying those who were legally qualified, and then passing those prospective jurors on to the prosecution and defense for additional questioning. See Brief for Respondent at 1.
The trial court questioned Delores Gomez. See Brief for Petitioner at 3. Gomez told the court that for the last twenty-two years, she had been serving as a business office supervisor at Cook County Hospital, and indicated that she could be impartial. See Brief for Respondent at 2; Brief for Petitioner at 3. Upon further questioning, the defense learned that Gomez worked in an out-patient orthopedic clinic located in a separate building from the hospital. See Brief for Respondent at 3. The defense discussed with Gomez Cook County Hospital's frequent treatment of gunshot wound patients, and upon inquiry found out that Gomez had direct contact with hospital patients. See Brief for Petitioner at 3. Gomez indicated, however, that despite her experiences from her employment, she could be an impartial juror. See id.
After questioning Gomez, the defense requested her dismissal using a peremptory challenge. See Brief for Petitioner at 3. The court overruled the request, concluding that it was discriminatory. See Brief for Petitioner at 4. The court observed that Gomez "appear[ed] to be an African American female," and that if it allowed this peremptory challenge, Gomez would be the second African American woman the defense utilized its peremptory challenges to dismiss. See Brief for Respondent at 3.
Gomez became the foreperson of the jury that convicted Rivera of first-degree murder. See Brief for Respondent at 4-5. The trial court sentenced Rivera to eighty-five years in prison. See id. Rivera appealed the conviction, alleging that the trial court had erred in overruling its peremptory challenge in respect to Gomez. See Brief for Petitioner at 5.
The Illinois Appellate Court found no error and affirmed Rivera's conviction and sentence. See id. The Illinois Supreme Court, however, remanded the case back to the trial court, instructing it to specify its reasons for overruling the defense's peremptory challenge. See Brief for Respondent at 5.
On remand, the trial court explained that it had overruled the peremptory challenge because it had suspected the defense of discriminating against Gomez's gender. See Brief for Petitioner at 6. The Illinois Supreme Court found that when the defense first sought to use one of its peremptory challenges to dismiss Gomez, there was no evidence that the defense's motivations were in any way discriminatory. See Brief for Respondent at 6. Therefore, the Illinois Supreme Court held, the trial court erred in not allowing the defense's peremptory challenge to Gomez. See Brief for Petitioner at 6. The Illinois Supreme Court, however, found the error to be harmless, and upheld Rivera's conviction. See Brief for Respondent at 6.
The Supreme Court granted certiorari on October 1, 2008. See 129 S.Ct. 29; Supreme Court of the United States, Granted and Noted List, Oct. Term 2008 at 7.
In certain variants of poker, a player is permitted to replace cards from their hand with those from the deck before play begins. In much the same way, the peremptory challenge allows attorneys to replace prospective jurors during the jury selection process before trial begins. See Black's Law Dictionary 244-45 (8th ed. 2004). Unlike for-cause challenges, which require a reason for removal (e.g. bias), the peremptory challenge does not require justification. See id.
The arguments here focus on how an appellate court should review a criminal conviction when one of the jurors was improperly seated after an erroneous denial of a defendant's peremptory challenge. See Docket 07-9995. Should an appellate court automatically reverse the conviction, or apply "harmless-error" review and thus look into whether the outcome would have been different absent the error? See Brief for Petitioner, Michael Rivera at 9-10; Brief for Respondent, Illinois at 7-8. The arguments primarily address automatic reversal as a rule, various due process claims, and the difficulties associated with harmless-error review. See Brief for Petitioner at 9-10; Brief for Respondent at 7-8.
Automatic reversal as a rule
Petitioner Michael Rivera argues that automatic reversal is required in cases where members of the jury were seated contrary to law. See Brief for Petitioner at 9. Unlike trial errors which may be subject to harmless-error review, Rivera argues, this was a structural error going to the foundation of the trial, thus necessitating an automatic reversal. See Id. at 10-11. As support, Rivera cites authority where judgments by unlawful adjudicators were automatically reversed without harmless-error review. See Id. at 13. According to Rivera, trial by an unlawful adjudicator is grounds for an automatic reversal and does not require any inquiry into whether the erroneous denial of the peremptory challenge itself violated a constitutional right. See Id. at 18.
Respondent the State of Illinois, counters that there is no constitutional right to a peremptory challenge, and that errors concerning such challenges are errors of state law. See Brief for Respondent at 15. The State claims that Rivera's case citations involved violations of federal judicial power or federal constitutional rights and do not amount to a general rule requiring automatic reversal. See Id. at 17. Essentially, the State argues that Rivera is not entitled to automatic reversal simply because there was a violation of state law which affected the jury. See Id. at 27-28. The denial of the peremptory challenge was a violation of state law, and thus it was for state law to control whether harmless-error review applied. See Id. at 9, 15.
Due process: Unlawful adjudicator
Rivera argues that, should the automatic reversal rule be insufficient, a trial before an unlawful adjudicator is a violation of due process. See Brief for Petitioner at 19-20. In other words,Rivera raises a basic constitutional right to a trial by those with lawful authority to convict him. See Id. In much the same way fictional juries on television crime dramas do not have the lawful authority to convict someone in the real world, the jury unlawfully containing Gomez did not have the lawful authority to convict Rivera. See Id.
The State, however, argues that it is for Illinois law to state what effect violations of Illinois law have - here, state law determined that Rivera was lawfully convicted, and the cases Rivera cites do not inject due process into the issue. See Brief for Respondent at 7, 29-30. The State claims Rivera's citations involved federal jurisdictional violations and federal law. See Id. Furthermore, the State contends that due process cannot "constitutionalize" all mistakes concerning state law, because "[w]hile some mistakes in the application of state law may produce unconstitutional results, it simply is not per se unconstitutional to misapply state law." Id. at 30.
Due process: Unacceptable risk of bias
Rivera argues that proceedings in which there is an unacceptable risk of bias necessitate automatic reversal, even without a showing of actual bias. See Brief for Petitioner at 36. Here, Rivera contends that the seating of Gomez created such a risk of bias and gave the state undue influence over the jury. See Id. at 26-27. Rivera further contends that as peremptory challenges have played an important role in removing bias from tribunals, improper denial of a peremptory challenge undermines that role. See Id. at 28-36. In other words, Rivera argues that it does not matter if Gomez was actually biased because the process by which she was seated "created an intolerable risk of bias" Id. at 36.
The State counters that due process does not require that the defendant be given peremptory challenges, as due process only concerns actual bias and does not require mechanisms to prevent the "appearance" or "risk" of bias. See Brief for Respondent at 7, 33. Moreover, the State argues that much of the case authority that Rivera cites involved actual or implied bias that would support a for cause challenge (i.e. removal of a juror because of actual or implied bias), rather than a peremptory challenge. See Id. at 31. Here, the State points out that Rivera did not argue actual bias and that there is no such indication of actual bias. See Id. at 7-8, 36-38. As such, the State claims there was no due process violation in erroneously denying the peremptory challenge because due process only safeguards against actual bias and not the potential for bias. See Id. at 36.
Paralleling this concern, Rivera also argues that the denial violated due process by granting the prosecutor greater control over jury selection (i.e. by seating Gomez in contrary to Rivera's peremptory challenge, the prosecutor was able to select a juror that Rivera did not want and had a right to exclude). See Brief for Petitioner at 36. The State responds that the prosecutor did not receive veto power over the defendant's peremptory challenges. See Brief for Respondent at 38. Moreover, both the prosecution and defense had extra peremptory challenges left after the jury was seated, with the defense having used more than the prosecution. See Id.
Due process: Following your own laws
Rivera acknowledges that the Constitution does not compel states to offer peremptory challenges. See Brief for Petitioner at 38. However, Rivera contends that once a state decides to offer criminal defendants peremptory challenges, due process requires the state to follow through on its offer. See Id. at 38-39.
The State argues that good faith mistakes in applying state law do not trigger due process violations, unlike errors which create "fundamental unfairness." See Brief for Respondent at 40-41. Here, the State argues, the evidence shows Gomez was qualified under Illinois law and impartial by constitutional standards, and so her erroneous seating did not create any fundamental unfairness. See Id. Moreover, the State points out that the error was not ignored, as Rivera had the opportunity to argue this error both before Gomez was seated and afterwards in appellate review. See Id. at 41-45.
Problems conducting a harmless-error review when a juror is erroneously seated
Rivera also argues that automatic reversal is required because harmless-error review (i.e. looking to the effect of the error on the outcome) is impossible. See Brief for Petitioner at 20-21. Rivera contends that this is more than simply a question of how the specific juror in question would have interpreted the evidence, and looks also the effect that juror had on deliberations. See Id. at 22. More seriously, Rivera contends, holding an error harmless based on how a hypothetical jury would view the record is akin to a directed verdict of guilt in a criminal trial, which violates the Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury. See Id. at 26.
The State, however, argues that there has been no violation of federal rights and that difficulty alone is not a sufficient ground for automatic reversal. See Brief for Respondent at 8, 45, 47. The State argues that "[p]arties have a right to an impartial jury, not jurors of their choosing." Id. at 47. The State points out that the Illinois Supreme Court looked at the trial records, including Gomez's answers during voir dire, and held that Rivera received an impartial jury because Gomez was unbiased, and so seating her was harmless error. See Id. at 45-49. Moreover, the State argues that harmless-error review was not akin to a directed verdict of guilt in a criminal case, because the Illinois Supreme Court reviewed and held the evidence to be sufficient such that "any rational trier of fact would have found the defendant guilty." See Id. at 49-50 (quoting People v. Rivera, 227 Ill.2d 1, 27 (Ill. 2007)). In other words, the State argues, not only did the Illinois Supreme Court looked not only to see whether Gomez was biased, but also took to make sure the jury's decision was rational - this was an alternative check on harmlessness, not a directed verdict of guilt. See Id. at 50.
The outcome of Rivera v. Illinois will most significantly impact prosecutors and defense attorneys. Before trial, each party to a case has two methods of dismissing a juror: a challenge for cause and a peremptory challenge. See Brief of Amicus Curiae Wayne County, Michigan ("Wayne County") in Support of Respondent at 7. To exercise a challenge for cause, a party must provide the court with a reason he believes a juror cannot be impartial. See Id. Examples of reasons include a juror having a relationship with one of the parties or expressing prejudice against a certain race, nationality, or gender. See Id. In contrast, a party exercising a peremptory challenge is under no obligation to provide the court with a reason for dismissing a juror. See Brief for Respondent, Illinois at 1.
The trial court in this case required the defense to explain its reasoning for exercising a peremptory challenge. See Brief for Petitioner at 6. This requirement, to the defense, was simply unacceptable. See Id. at 12. The defense perceives the right to dismiss a juror without providing the trial court with a reason as essential as the defendant's exercise of his Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury. See Id. at 12. To defense attorneys, the peremptory challenge is a "critical mechanism" for protecting the rights of their clients, because it allows them to dismiss members of jury pools who are either unwilling or unable to admit their bias. See Brief of Amicus Curiae National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers ("NACDL") in Support of Petitioner at 2, 10.
If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Rivera, and finds that the erroneous denial of Rivera's peremptory challenge necessitates his conviction being overturned, the decision will support the defense's argument that the peremptory challenge is "necessary to weed out jurors who cannot be impartial." See Brief of NACDL at 10-11. Amici for the State of Illinois, however, argue that a decision favoring Rivera will incorrectly signal to prosecutors that the peremptory challenge should be elevated to the "stature of a constitutional right" See Brief of Wayne County at 21. Amici further argue that an impartial jury is all that the Constitution requires, for "[i]t is a bedrock principle that parties have no constitutional right to peremptory challenges." See Brief for Respondent at 7.
In addition, amici for the State argue that unlike defense attorneys, prosecutors can perceive circumstances in which the violation of the right to a peremptory challenge does not automatically mandate a new trial. See Brief of Wayne County at 20-21.Amici and the State emphasize that procedural error in the impaneling of the jury may exist without resulting in an impartial jury, and that here, there was no evidence that Gomez was actually biased. See Id.; Brief for Respondent at 6. On the other hand, Rivera argues that if the Supreme Court accepts the State's argument and rules against Rivera, actual bias will be the standard by which the need for mandatory reversal is measured, rather than a "sufficient risk of jury bias." See Brief for Petitioner at 10. Rivera implies that this standard of actual bias will be much more difficult for counsel to prove. See id.
Practically, the Court's decision will be the difference between Rivera serving eighty-five years in prison with the conviction for Lee's death on his record, or getting a new trial. It will also, however, greatly impact the criminal justice system by either providing defense attorneys with a new tool with which to fight their clients' convictions, or providing prosecutors with a new shield against reversal and retrial.
In Rivera v. Illinois, the Supreme Court will decide whether a court's decision in wrongfully denying a defendant's peremptory challenge must always result in a reversal of a conviction. If the Court decides yes in favor of Rivera, defense attorneys will have one more tool with which to challenge their clients' convictions. A decision for the State of Illinois, however, would provide prosecutors with another shield against reversal. Either way, the outcome of this case will clarify the importance of peremptory challenges, due process, and an impartial jury.