Edmonson v. Leesville Concrete Co. (89-7743), 500 U.S. 614 (1991)
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No. 89-7743


[June 3, 1991]

Justice O'Connor, with whom The Chief Justice and Justice Scalia join, dissenting.

The Court concludes that the action of a private attorney exercising a peremptory challenge is attributable to the government and therefore may compose a constitutional violation. This conclusion is based on little more than that the challenge occurs in the course of a trial. Not everything that happens in a courtroom is state action. A trial, particularly a civil trial, is by design largely a stage on which private parties may act; it is a forum through which they can resolve their disputes in a peaceful and ordered manner. The government erects the platform; it does not thereby become responsible for all that occurs upon it. As much as we would like to eliminate completely from the courtroom the specter of racial discrimination, the Constitution does not sweep that broadly. Because I believe that a peremptory strike by a private litigant is fundamentally a matter of private choice and not state action, I dissent.


In order to establish a constitutional violation, Edmonson must first demonstrate that Leesville's use of a peremptory challenge can fairly be attributed to the government. Unfortunately, our cases deciding when private action might be deemed that of the state have not been a model of consistency. Perhaps this is because the state action determination is so closely tied to the "framework of the peculiar facts or circumstances present." See Burton v. Wilmington Parking Authority, 365 U.S. 715, 726 (1961). Whatever the reason, and despite the confusion, a coherent principle has emerged. We have stated the rule in various ways, but at base, "constitutional standards are invoked only when it can be said that the [government] is responsible for the specific conduct of which the plaintiff complains." Blum v. Yaret sky, 457 U.S. 991, 1004 (1982). Constitutional "liability attaches only to those wrongdoers `who carry a badge of authority of [the government] and represent it in some capacity."' National Collegiate Athletic Assn. v. Tarkanian, 488 U.S. 179, 191 (1988), quoting Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167, 172 (1961).

The Court concludes that this standard is met in the pres ent case. It rests this conclusion primarily on two empirical assertions. First, that private parties use peremptory challenges with the "overt, significant participation of the government." Ante, at 7. Second, that the use of a peremptory challenge by a private party "involves the performance of a traditional function of the government." Ante, at 9. Neither of these assertions is correct.


The Court begins with a perfectly accurate definition of the peremptory challenge. Peremptory challenges "allow parties to exclude a given number of persons who otherwise would satisfy the requirements for service on the petit jury." Ante, at 5. This description is worth more careful analysis, for it belies the Court's later conclusions about the peremptory.

The peremptory challenge "allow[s] parties," in this case private parties, to exclude potential jurors. It is the nature of a peremptory that its exercise is left wholly within the discretion of the litigant. The purpose of this longstanding practice is to establish for each party an "`arbitrary and capricious species of challenge"' whereby the "`sudden impressions and unaccountable prejudices we are apt to conceive upon the bare looks and gestures of another"' may be acted upon. Lewis v. United States, 146 U.S. 370, 376 (1892), quoting 4 W.Blackstone, Commentaries *353. By allowing the litigant to strike jurors for even the most subtle of discerned biases, the peremptory challenge fosters both the perception and reality of an impartial jury. Ibid.; Hayes v. Missouri, 120 U.S. 68, 70 (1887); Swain v. Alabama, 380 U.S. 202, 219 (1965); Holland v. Illinois, 493 U.S. 474, 481-482 (1990). In both criminal and civil trials, the peremptory challenge is a mechanism for the exercise of private choice in the pursuit of fairness. The peremptory is, by design, an enclave of private action in a government-managed proceeding.

The Court amasses much ostensible evidence of the Federal Government's "overt, significant participation" in the peremptory process. See ante, at 7-9. Most of this evidence is irrelevant to the issue at hand. The bulk of the practices the Court describes — the establishment of qualifications for jury service, the location and summoning of perspective jurors, the jury wheel, the voter lists, the jury qualification forms, the per diem for jury service — are independent of the statutory entitlement to peremptory strikes, or of their use. All of this government action is in furtherance of the Government's distinct obligation to provide a qualified jury; the Government would do these things even if there were no peremptory challenges. All of this activity, as well as the trial judge's control over voir dire, see ante, at 8, are merely prerequisites to the use of a peremptory challenge; they do not constitute participation in the challenge. That these actions may be necessary to a peremptory challenge — in the sense that there could be no such challenge without a venire from which to select — no more makes the challenge state action than the building of roads and provision of public transportation makes state action of riding on a bus.

The entirety of the Government's actual participation in the peremptory process boils down to a single fact: "When a lawyer exercises a peremptory challenge, the judge advises the juror he or she has been excused." Ante, at 8-9. This is not significant participation. The judge's action in "advising" a juror that he or she has been excused is state action to be sure. It is, however, if not de minimis, far from what our cases have required in order to hold the government "responsible" for private action or to find that private actors "represent" the government. See Blum, supra, at 1004; Tarkanian, supra, at 191. The government "normally can be held responsible for a private decision only when it has exercised coercive power or has provided such significant encouragement, either overt or covert, that the choice must in law be deemed to be that of the State." Blum, supra, at 1004.

As an initial matter, the judge does not "encourage" the use of a peremptory challenge at all. The decision to strike a juror is entirely up to the litigant, and the reasons for doing so are of no consequence to the judge. It is the attorney who strikes. The judge does little more than acquiesce in this decision by excusing the juror. In point of fact, the government has virtually no role in the use of peremptory challenges. Indeed, there are jurisdictions in which, with the consent of the parties, voir dire and jury selection may take place in the absence of any court personnel. See Haith v. United States, 231 F. Supp. 495 (ED Pa. 1964), aff'd, 342 F. 2d 158 (CA3 1965) (per curiam); State v. Eberhardt, 32 Ohio Misc. 39, 282 N.E. 2d 62 (1972).

The alleged state action here is a far cry from that the Court found, for example, in Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1 (1948). In that case, state courts were called upon to enforce racially restrictive covenants against sellers of real property who did not wish to discriminate. The coercive power of the State was necessary in order to enforce the private choice of those who had created the covenants: "[B]ut for the active intervention of the state courts, supported by the full panoply of state power, petitioners would have been free to occupy the properties in question without restraint." Id., at 19. Moreover, the courts in Shelley were asked to enforce a facially discriminatory contract. In contrast, peremptory challenges are "exercised without a reason stated [and] without inquiry." Swain, supra, at 220. A judge does not "significantly encourage" discrimination by the mere act of excusing a juror in response to an unexplained request.

There is another important distinction between Shelley and this case. The state courts in Shelley used coercive force to impose conformance on parties who did not wish to discriminate. "Enforcement" of peremptory challenges, on the other hand, does not compel anyone to discriminate; the discrimination is wholly a matter of private choice. See Goldwasser, Limiting a Criminal Defendant's Use of Peremptory Challenges: On Symmetry and the Jury in a Criminal Trial, 102 Harv. L. Rev. 808, 819 (1989). Judicial acquiescence does not convert private choice into that of the state. See Blum, 457 U.S., at 1004-1005.

Nor is this the kind of significant involvement found in Tulsa Professional Collection Services, Inc. v. Pope, 485 U.S. 478 (1988). There, we concluded that the actions of the executrix of an estate in providing notice to creditors that they might file claims could fairly be attributed to the State. The State's involvement in the notice process, we said, was "pervasive and substantial." Id., at 487. In particular, a state statute directed the executrix to publish notice. In addition, the District Court in that case had "reinforced the statutory command with an order expressly requiring [the executrix] to `immediately give notice to creditors."' Ibid. Notice was not only encouraged by the State, but positively required. There is no comparable state involvement here. No one is compelled by government action to use a peremptory challenge, let alone to use it in a racially discriminatory way.

The Court relies also on Burton v. Wilmington Parking Authority, 365 U.S. 715 (1961). See ante, at 6, 9. But the decision in that case depended on the perceived symbiotic relationship between a restaurant and the state parking authority from whom it leased space in a public building. The State had "so far insinuated itself into a position of interdependence with" the restaurant that it had to be "recognized as a joint participant in the challenged activity." Burton, supra, at 725. Among the "peculiar facts [and] circumstances" leading to that conclusion was that the State stood to profit from the restaurant's discrimination. 365 U.S., at 726, 724. As I have shown, the government's involvement in the use of peremptory challenges falls far short of "interdependence" or "joint participation." Whatever the continuing vitality of Burton beyond its facts, see Jackson v. Metropolitan Edison Co., 419 U.S. 345, 358 (1974), it does not support the Court's conclusion here.

Jackson is a more appropriate analogy to this case. Metropolitan Edison terminated Jackson's electrical service under authority granted it by the State, pursuant to a procedure approved by the state utility commission. Nonetheless, we held that Jackson could not challenge the termination procedure on due process grounds. The termination was not state action because the State had done nothing to encourage the particular termination practice:

"Approval by a state utility commission of such a request from a regulated utility, where the commission has not put its own weight on the side of the proposed practice by ordering it, does not transmute a practice initiated by the utility and approved by the commission into "state action." ... Respondent's exercise of the choice allowed by state law where the initiative comes from it and not from the State, does not make its action in doing so "state action" for purposes of the Fourteenth Amendment." Id., at 357 (emphasis added; footnote omitted).

The similarity to this case is obvious. The Court's "overt, significant" government participation amounts to the fact that the government provides the mechanism whereby a litigant can choose to exercise a peremptory challenge. That the government allows this choice and that the judge approves it, does not turn this private decision into state action.

To the same effect is Flagg Bros., Inc. v. Brooks, 436 U.S. 149 (1978). In that case, a warehouseman's proposed sale of goods entrusted to it for storage pursuant to the New York Uniform Commercial Code was not fairly attributable to the State. We held that "the State of New York is in no way responsible for Flagg Brothers' decision, a decision which the State in §7-210 permits but does not compel, to threaten to sell these respondents' belongings." Id., at 165. Similarly, in the absence of compulsion, or at least encouragement, from the government in the use of peremptory challenges, the government is not responsible.

"The essential nature of the peremptory challenge is that it is one exercised without a reason stated, without inquiry and without being subject to the court's control." Swain, 380 U.S., at 220. The government neither encourages nor approves such challenges. Accordingly, there is no "overt, significant participation" by the government.


The Court errs also when it concludes that the exercise of a peremptory challenge is a traditional government function. In its definition of the peremptory challenge, the Court asserts, correctly, that jurors struck via peremptories "otherwise ... satisfy the requirements for service on the petit jury." Ante, at 5. Whatever reason a private litigant may have for using a peremptory challenge, it is not the government's reason. The government otherwise establishes its requirements for jury service, leaving to the private litigant the unfettered discretion to use the strike for any reason. This is not part of the government's function in establishing the requirements for jury service. "Peremptory challenges are exercised by a party, not in selection of jurors, but in rejection. It is not aimed at disqualification, but is exercised upon qualified jurors as matter of favor to the challenger." C. Lincoln, Abbott's Civil Jury Trials 92 (3d ed. 1912), quoting O'Neil v. Lake Superior Iron Co., 67 Mich. 560, 35 N.W. 162 (1887). For this reason, the Court is incorrect, and inconsistent with its own definition of the peremptory challenge, when it says that "[i]n the jury-selection process [in a civil trial], the government and private litigants work for the same end." See ante, at 12. The Court is also incorrect when it says that a litigant exercising a peremptory challenge is performing "a traditional function of the government." See ante, at 9.

The peremptory challenge is a practice of ancient origin, part of our common law heritage in criminal trials. See Swain, supra, at 212-218 (tracing history); Holland, 493 U.S., at 481 (same). Congress imported this tradition into federal civil trials in 1872. See ch. 333, 17 Stat. 282; Swain, 380 U.S., at 215, n.14. The practice of unrestrained private choice in the selection of civil juries is even older than that, however. While there were no peremptory challenges in civil trials at common law, the struck jury system allowed each side in both criminal and civil trials to strike alternately, and without explanation, a fixed number of jurors. See id., at 217-218, and n.21, citing J. Proffatt, Trial by Jury §72 (1877), and F. Busch, Law and Tactics in Jury Trials §62 (1949). Peremptory challenges are not a traditional government function; the "tradition" is one of unguided private choice. The Court may be correct that "[w]ere it not for peremptory challenges, ... the entire process of determining who will serve on the jury [would] constitut[e] state action." Ante, at 11. But there are peremptory challenges, and always have been. The peremptory challenge forms no part of the government's responsibility in selecting a jury.

A peremptory challenge by a private litigant does not meet the Court's standard; it is not a traditional government function. Beyond this, the Court has misstated the law. The Court cites Terry v. Adams, 345 U.S. 461 (1953), and Marsh v. Alabama, 326 U.S. 501 (1946), for the proposition that state action may be imputed to one who carries out a "traditional governmental function." Ante, at 6. In those cases, the Court held that private control over certain core government activities rendered the private action attributable to the State. In Terry, the activity was a private primary election that effectively determined the outcome of county general elections. In Marsh, a company that owned a town had attempted to prohibit on its sidewalks certain protected speech.

In Flagg Bros., supra, the Court reviewed these and other cases that found state action in the exercise of certain public functions by private parties. See 436 U.S., at 157-160, reviewing Terry, Marsh, Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649 (1944), and Nixon v. Condon, 286 U.S. 73 (1932). We explained that the government functions in these cases had one thing in common: exclusivity. The public-function doctrine requires that the private actor exercise "a power `traditionally exclusively reserved to the State."' 436 U.S., at 157, quoting Jackson, 419 U.S., at 352. In order to constitute state action under this doctrine, private conduct must not only comprise something that the government traditionally does, but something that only the government traditionally does. Even if one could fairly characterize the use of a peremptory strike as the performance of the traditional government function of jury selection, it has never been exclusively the function of the government to select juries; peremptory strikes are older than the Republic.

West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42 (1988), is not to the contrary. The Court seeks to derive from that case a rule that one who "serve[s] an important function within the government," even if not a government employee, is thereby a state actor. See ante, at 13. Even if this were the law, it would not help the Court's position. The exercise of a peremptory challenge is not an important government function; it is not a government function at all. In any event, West does not stand for such a broad proposition. The doctor in that case was under contract with the State to provide services for the State. More important, the State hired the doctor in order to fulfill the State's constitutional obligation to attend to the necessary medical care of prison inmates. 487 U.S., at 53, n.10, 57. The doctor's relation to the State, and the State's responsibility, went beyond mere performance of an important job.

The present case is closer to Jackson, supra, and RendellBaker v. Kohn, 457 U.S. 830 (1982), than to Terry, Marsh, or West. In the former cases, the alleged state activities were those of state-regulated private actors performing what might be considered traditional public functions. See Jackson (electrical utility); Rendell-Baker (school). In each case, the Court held that the performance of such a function, even if state regulated or state funded, was not state action unless the function had been one exclusively the prerogative of the State, or the State had provided such significant encouragement to the challenged action that the State could be held responsible for it. See Jackson, 419 U.S., at 352-353, 357; Rendell-Baker, supra, at 842, 840. The use of a peremptory challenge by a private litigant meets neither criterion.


None of this should be news, as this case is fairly well controlled by Polk County v. Dodson, 454 U.S. 312 (1981). We there held that a public defender, employed by the State, does not act under color of state law when representing a defendant in a criminal trial. [n.1] In such a circumstance, government employment is not sufficient to create state action. More important for present purposes, neither is the performance of a lawyer's duties in a courtroom. This is because a lawyer, when representing a private client, cannot at the same time represent the government.

Trials in this country are adversarial proceedings. Attorneys for private litigants do not act on behalf of the government, or even the public as a whole; attorneys represent their clients. An attorney's job is to "advanc[e] the `undivided interests of his client.' This is essentially a private function ... for which state office and authority are not needed." Id., at 318-319 (footnotes omitted). When performing adversarial functions during trial, an attorney for a private litigant acts independently of the government:

"[I]t is the function of the public defender to enter `not guilty' pleas, move to suppress State's evidence, object to evidence at trial, cross-examine State's witnesses, and make closing arguments in behalf of defendants. All of these are adversarial functions. We find it peculiarly difficult to detect any color of state law in such activities." 454 U.S., at 320.

Our conclusion in Dodson was that "a public defender does not act under color of state law when performing a lawyer's traditional functions as counsel to a defendant in a criminal proceeding." Id., at 325. It cannot be gainsaid that a peremptory strike is a traditional adversarial act; parties use these strikes to further their own perceived interests, not as an aid to the government's process of jury selection. The Court does not challenge the rule of Dodson, yet concludes that private attorneys performing this adversarial function are state actors. Where is the distinction?

The Court wishes to limit the scope of Dodson to the actions of public defenders in an adversarial relationship with the government. Ante, at 11-12. At a minimum then, the Court must concede that Dodson stands for the proposition that a criminal defense attorney is not a state actor when using peremptory strikes on behalf of a client, nor is an attorney representing a private litigant in a civil suit against the government. Both of these propositions are true, but the Court's distinction between this case and Dodson turns state action doctrine on its head. Attorneys in an adversarial relation to the state are not state actors, but that does not mean that attorneys who are not in such a relation are state actors.

The Court is plainly wrong when it asserts that "[i]n the jury-selection process, the government and private litigants work for the same end." See ante, at 12. In a civil trial, the attorneys for each side are in "an adversarial relation," ibid.; they use their peremptory strikes in direct opposition to one another, and for precisely contrary ends. The government cannot "work for the same end" as both parties. In fact, the government is neutral as to private litigants' use of peremptory strikes. That's the point. The government does not encourage or approve these strikes, or direct that they be used in any particular way, or even that they be used at all. The government is simply not "responsible" for the use of peremptory strikes by private litigants.

Constitutional "liability attaches only to those wrongdoers `who carry a badge of authority of [the government] and represent it in some capacity."' Tarkanian, 488 U.S., at 191. A government attorney who uses a peremptory challenge on behalf of the client is, by definition, representing the government. The challenge thereby becomes state action. It is antithetical to the nature of our adversarial process, however, to say that a private attorney acting on behalf of a private client represents the government for constitutional purposes.


Beyond "significant participation" and "traditional function," the Court's final argument is that the exercise of a peremptory challenge by a private litigant is state action because it takes place in a courtroom. Ante, at 13. In the end, this is all the Court is left with; peremptories do not involve the "overt, significant participation of the government," nor do they constitute a "traditional function of the government." The Court is also wrong in its ultimate claim. If Dodson stands for anything, it is that the actions of a lawyer in a courtroom do not become those of the government by virtue of their location. This is true even if those actions are based on race.

Racism is a terrible thing. It is irrational, destructive, and mean. Arbitrary discrimination based on race is particularly abhorrent when manifest in a courtroom, a forum established by the government for the resolution of disputes through "quiet rationality." See ante, at 16. But not every opprobrious and inequitable act is a constitutional violation. The Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause prohibits only actions for which the Government can be held responsible. The Government is not responsible for everything that occurs in a courtroom. The Government is not responsible for a peremptory challenge by a private litigant. I respectfully dissent.


1 Dodson was a case brought under 42 U.S.C. §1983, the statutory mechanism for many constitutional claims. The issue in that case, therefore, was whether the public defender had acted "under color of state law." 454 U.S., at 314. In Lugar v. Edmondson Oil Co., 457 U.S. 922, 929 (1982), the Court held that the statutory requirement of action "under color of state law" is identical to the "state action" requirement for other constitutional claims.