Berghuis v. Smith: Supreme Court Unanimously Reverses Jury-Diversity-Based Habeas Case in Favor of Government

Last week the Supreme Court decided Berghuis v. Smith in favor of the government. The Court held that criminal defendant Smith was not entitled to federal habeas corpus relief on his claim that the jury selection process had violated his Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury drawn from a fair cross section of the community.

Because Smith was challenging his state conviction in a federal habeas corpus petition, under AEDPA, the federal courts could grant relief only if the state court decisions involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court unanimously held that Smith had not met this burden under the law established by Duren v. Mississippi in 1979.

Under Duren, to establish a prima facie violation of this Sixth Amendment right, a defendant must show:
(1) that the group alleged to be excluded is a distinctive group in the community;
(2) that the representation of this group in venires from which juries are selected is not fair and reasonable in relation to the number of such persons in the community; and
(3) that this underrepresentation is due to systematic exclusion of the group in the jury-selection process.

The dispositive issue in Smith, and in Duren, was whether underrepresentation was due to systematic exclusion. The Court noted that Smith lacked evidence showing that the jury-selection process caused underrepresentation. He failed to compare the representation in the circuit court of his trial with that of the state district court or federal district court for the same region. Thus, the Court held that the state supreme court decision denying the claim was consistent with Duren.

The unanimous opinion, written by Justice Ginsburg, is available here. Justice Thomas filed a concurring opinion to express that he “would be willing to reconsider [the Court’s] precedents articulating the “fair cross section” requirement.”