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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.

So what exactly is a jury of peers and what are defendants' rights in this respect? The following is a brief overview.

A Jury of Your Peers: The Basics

The phrase "a jury of peers" 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, this phrase more accurately means "a jury of fellow citizens."

While courts don't 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 their race or gender. In practice, however, potential jurors often are removed for what appears to be their gender or race, even though the removal is for other stated reasons (or for no particular reason at all).

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's anything in the juror's background that may prejudice their 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 don't 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 can't 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 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 their race, the State can't exclude jurors simply because they're of the same race as the defendant.

Challenges Based on Gender, Age, or Sexual Orientation

Courts aren't only prohibited from removing a juror on account of their race, they also may not exclude a juror on the basis of gender. 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 their sexual orientation. It should be noted, however, that this is a developing area of law.

Protect Your Right to a Jury of Your Peers: Contact an Attorney

Jury selection is a very specialized practice and raising effective juror challenges often requires sophisticated strategies. An experienced attorney can handle selecting a jury with aplomb. If you have questions about this or any specific case, consider retaining the services of an experienced criminal defense attorney.

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