What Is a Jury of Peers?
While it isn't specifically stated anywhere in the Constitution, criminal defendants generally have the right to be tried by "a jury of peers." You may be wondering what exactly that entails. Contrary to popular belief, defendants are not entitled to a jury containing members of their own race, gender, age, or sexual orientation.
The phrase dates back to the signing of the Magna Carta in England. At that point, the provision ensured that members of the nobility were tried by a jury comprised of fellow nobles, rather than being judged by the king. Now, however, "a jury of peers" more accurately means "a jury of fellow citizens."
While courts do not have to ensure that a defendant's race, gender, or age group is represented in the jury pool, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that courts may not remove a potential juror based solely on his or her race or gender. Below, you'll find an explanation of the jury selection process and the constitutional limitations placed on it.
The Jury Selection Process
The state puts together "a jury of peers" by first randomly selecting local citizens for the jury pool. The pool is then shaped during the jury selection, or voir dire, phase of the trial. During jury selection, the judge, prosecution, and defense question each potential juror in order to determine whether there is anything in the juror's background that may prejudice his or her judgment in the case.
The prosecutors and defense attorneys may then object to the inclusion of certain jurors. Attorneys have two types of objections to potential jurors: challenges for cause and peremptory challenges. While attorneys must have a legitimate reason to exclude a juror when making a challenge for cause, they typically do not need to give reasons for peremptory challenges.
In the past, prosecutors and defense attorneys may have used peremptory challenges to exclude jurors who were either of the same or different race or background as the defendant. In a number of recent decisions, however, the Supreme Court has placed restrictions on attorneys' ability to use peremptory challenges based on a juror's race, gender, or other attributes.
Challenges Based on Race
While courts aren't required to include members of a defendant's race to create "a jury of peers," attorneys cannot exclude a juror based on race during jury selection. In Batson v. Kentucky, James Batson, an African American man, was on trial for burglary and receipt of stolen goods. The prosecutor in the case used peremptory challenges to exclude all four African American members of the jury pool, effectively creating an all-white jury.
After being convicted of the crimes, Batson appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the removal of the black jurors violated his rights under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Court ruled in Batson's favor. It found that while a defendant has no right to a jury composed, in whole or in part, of persons of his or her race, the State cannot exclude jurors simply because they are of the same race as the defendant.
Challenges Based on Gender, Age, or Sexual Orientation
Courts are not only prohibited from removing a juror on account of his or her race, they may not exclude a juror on the basis of gender as well. The Supreme Court has ruled that challenges based solely on the sex of a juror are unconstitutional. As a result, attorneys may not challenge a potential juror merely because the juror is a man or a woman.
While race and gender are off-limits, there are a few other traits that attorneys may use as the basis for challenging a potential juror. For example, attorneys may use a peremptory challenge on the basis of a juror's age. Some attorneys may feel that a juror who is either very young or elderly, for instance, may have a harder time keeping track of the details involved in a complex case.
In addition, courts have not yet deemed challenges based on a juror's sexual orientation unconstitutional. As a result, attorneys may be able to use peremptory challenges to remove a juror based on his or her sexual preference. It should be noted, however, that this is a developing area of law.