Imagine that you’re called for jury duty. Maybe you’re excited – you’ve always wanted to see the justice system from inside. Maybe you’re bummed out – you’ve already been through this routine more times than you can remember.
Whatever you feel, you’re likely to trust in a system that is supposed to be fair to all – including prospective jurors. And because you’re over 50 years old, you’re more likely to be selected for a jury than others in the pool.
But then imagine that you’re excluded from serving on a jury because of your sexual orientation.
That’s what happened to a gay man in California. Lawyers for Abbott Laboratories used a peremptory strike – or a chance to remove someone from the jury pool without giving a reason – to exclude the prospective gay juror from serving on a case involving the pricing of an AIDS drug.
The federal appeals court that covers California and much of the West held that excluding the juror because of his sexual orientation was unconstitutional discrimination. Judge Stephen Reinhardt, known as one of the most liberal judges on the Circuit, wrote that, “Jury service is one of the most important responsibilities of an American citizen . . . Permitting a strike based on sexual orientation would send the false message that gays and lesbians could not be trusted to reason fairly on issues of great import to the community or the nation.”
It’s a landmark case for gay rights, as two U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the past 30 years held that jurors may not be excluded because of race or gender. “The court here properly found that, when a juror is excused based on the juror’s sexual orientation, that harms the juror, the litigants, and the judicial system itself,” says Jon Davidson, legal director at Lambda Legal. “As with race- and sex-based peremptory challenges, allowing prospective jurors to be precluded from serving because of their sexual orientation serves no purpose other than to perpetuate and reinforce invidious discrimination. The court ruled that such action directly contravenes the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, and should not be permitted.”
The appeals court decision is especially important because it conflicts with a 2005 decision from another circuit. In that case, the court expressed doubt that the Constitution protected jurors on the basis of sexual orientation. And where federal courts disagree, the Supreme Court usually steps in.
If that happens and the Court rules that the Constitution protects gay jurors, the decision could impact gay rights in other arenas, too. After all, if you can’t discriminate against gay people in the jury box, should you be able to anyplace else?
Top Photo: ftwitty/istockphoto.com
Bottom Photo: Jason Doiy/Getty Images
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