January 21, 2014 | by Chris Johnson
Gay juror decision bodes well for marriage cases: experts
National LGBT Bar Association, Gay News, Washington Blade

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals applied heightened scrutiny in ruling against discrimination against gay jurors (image via wikimedia).

A ruling handed down by a federal appeals court on Tuesday in favor of LGBT non-discrimination in jury selection bodes well for the success of marriage equality litigation, according to legal experts who spoke to the Washington Blade.

Suzanne Goldberg, a lesbian and co-director of Columbia University’s Center for Gender & Sexuality Law, said the decision is important in and of itself, but also because of its impact on the case pending before the same court against Nevada’s ban on same-sex marriage.

“The ruling will make it even more difficult for Nevada’s marriage law to withstand the current challenge to it because heightened scrutiny means that the government will have to identify an ‘important’ state interest if it wants to continue to exclude gay and lesbian couples from marriage,” Goldberg said.

On Tuesday, a three-judge panel on the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals determined the trial judge erred in allowing one litigant to remove a juror because of his sexual orientation, remanding the case for a new trial.

The case — Glaxo Smith Kline v. Abbott Laboratories — is the result of antitrust, contracts and business tort claims filed against the company for quadrupling the price of its protease inhibitor booster drug used by people with HIV. During jury selection, Abbott used its first peremptory challenge to strike a prospective juror after learning he was gay.

Writing for the majority, U.S. District Judge Roy Reinhardt ruled that Abbott “unconstitutionally used a peremptory strike” to exclude Juror B from the case because of his sexual orientation, but goes further by saying the court must apply heightened scrutiny in its ruling in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision against the Defense of Marriage Act.

“Windsor requires that when state action discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation, we must examine its actual purposes and carefully consider the resulting inequality to ensure that our most fundamental institutions neither send nor reinforce messages of stigma or second-class status,” Reinhardt writes. “In short, Windsor requires heightened scrutiny.”

It’s not the first time that an appellate court has applied heightened scrutiny, or a greater assumption a law is unconstitutional, when considering a case related to sexual orientation. The U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals applied that standard when ruling in favor of Edith Windsor in her case against DOMA before that lawsuit came before the Supreme Court.

Several federal district courts have made similar rulings, as have the state high courts of California, Iowa, Connecticut and New Mexico. The view that laws related to sexual orientation should be subject to heightened scrutiny is also shared by the Obama administration.

But the decision in the Ninth Circuit is significant because it creates precedent within that jurisdiction to apply heightened scrutiny in the numerous cases before it involving gay people and may encourage courts outside the circuit to do the same.

Doug NeJaime, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, said the court application of heightened scrutiny to its decision “is very significant.”

“This Ninth Circuit ruling will likely encourage other courts to engage with the issue of whether Windsor suggests some heightened form of scrutiny,” NeJaime said. “More concretely, it will directly influence the challenge to Nevada’s marriage law currently before the Ninth Circuit; whether sexual orientation merits heightened scrutiny for federal equal protection purposes has been an issue throughout that case, and the district court had decided that it did not.”

Still, NeJaime said the Ninth Circuit’s decision to draw on the DOMA decision to apply heightened scrutiny “will likely be proven controversial” because U.S. Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy never explicitly invoked the level of scrutiny in his ruling.

The high-profile case involving sexual orientation before the Ninth Circuit is Sevick v. Sandoval, the challenge filed by Lambda Legal against Nevada’s ban on same-sex marriage.

Jon Davidson, Lambda’s legal director, said the ruling will have “a very significant impact” on the court’s examination of the Nevada marriage case.

“The Ninth Circuit’s ruling that sexual orientation discrimination must be given heightened scrutiny is further proof of the progress we are making in convincing courts that the Constitution affords LGBT people meaningful protections against government-imposed inequality,” Davidson said.

Opponents of the case, known as the Coalition for the Protection of Marriage, filed their brief before the Ninth Circuit on the same day as the jury selection ruling, arguing in an untimely manner that “there is no legal or factual basis for deploying ‘heightened scrutiny’ in this case.”

But the Nevada marriage case isn’t the only lawsuit pending before the Ninth Circuit. Other cases in the jurisdiction are the recently filed challenge against Arizona’s ban on same-sex marriage and the case against Oregon’s ban, which is currently before  gay U.S. District Judge Michael McShane.

Additionally, the challenge against the Arizona law signed by Gov. Jan Brewer rescinding domestic partner benefits for gay state employees is also before the Ninth Circuit. The court’s use of heightened scrutiny in the juror case could influence the decision in any of these cases.

Davidson added the application of heightened scrutiny in the juror case also has implications on gay government workers seeking relief if they feel they’ve faced discrimination on the job.

“If any federal, state, or local government agency or official in any of the nine states in the Ninth Circuit discriminates against someone based on their sexual orientation, they will have the burden of demonstrating that their action substantially furthers an important and legitimate government goal,” Davidson said. “They will not be able to rely on hypothetical or after the fact justifications.”

Despite the celebration over the standard of review in the case, LGBT advocates are also celebrating the ruling in its own right for establishing non-discrimination against gay people in the juror selection process.

D’Arcy Kemnitz, executive director of the National LGBT Bar Association, commended the Ninth Circuit.

“Jury service is a fundamental civic duty,” Kemnitz said. “LGBT people are proud to serve the courts when summoned. While some might jest at jury duty, in fact the courts demand through a subpoena that a person suspends their usual daily activity to be part of the rule of law.”

Legislation known as the Jury ACCESS Act, which would institute a rule of non-discrimination for gay jurors in federal courts, is also pending before Congress. Last year, it was incorporated into the Senate version of the fiscal year 2014 financial services appropriations bill, but it’s technically no longer pending because Congress passed omnibus spending legislation instead.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), chief sponsor of the legislation, commended the Ninth Circuit for issuing the ruling, but said more action is needed from Congress.

“There is no place for discrimination in our judicial system, and it should be the right and obligation of every citizen to sit on a jury,” Shaheen said. “The appellate court’s ruling is an important step, but I will continue working to make sure no American can be excluded from this important civil responsibility on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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