A unanimous three-judge panel of the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled today in Smithkline Beecham Corp. v. Abbott Laboratories that a new trial has to be held because Abbott, the defendant in a civil suit involving claims about the pricing of HIV medications, used one of its “peremptory challenges” to exclude a gay man from the jury. The court found that excluding people from a jury because they are gay violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, under the 1986 Supreme Court ruling in Batson v. Kentucky. As a necessary part of its ruling, the 9th Circuit panel concluded that sexual orientation discrimination claims are subject to “heightened scrutiny,” a doctrine that makes them more likely to succeed and that may have a significant impact on pending marriage equality cases in Nevada, Arizona and Oregon.
In Batson, the Supreme Court held that excluding a potential juror because of his race violated the 14th Amendment. The court explained that such discrimination in jury selection would “touch the entire community” because it would “undermine public confidence in the fairness of our system of justice,” and that proof of such discrimination was grounds for reversing a trial verdict and ordering a new trial. In a subsequent case, the Supreme Court extend Batson to discrimination based on sex, but indicated that “parties may exercise their peremptory challenges to remove from the venire any group or class of individuals normally subject to ‘rational basis’ review.” Race is subject to “strict scrutiny,” and sex is subject to “heightened scrutiny.” In order to decide whether the jury strike in this case came within the Batson precedent, the 9th Circuit had to decide whether sexual orientation discrimination is subject to “heightened scrutiny.”
In past decisions, the 9th Circuit has rejected “heightened scrutiny” for sexual orientation discrimination claims, and normally a 9th Circuit panel would follow those precedents. But, in an opinion by Judge Stephen Reinhardt, the panel noted that the Supreme Court’s decision last June in United States v. Windsor has rendered the past 9th Circuit decisions obsolete. Even though the opinion for the Supreme Court by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy did not state explicitly what standard of review the Court was using in striking down Section 3 of DOMA, Judge Reinhardt asserted that the Windsor court was applying some form of heightened scrutiny in that case.
Reinhardt reached this result by a probing reading of Kennedy’s opinion, showing that what the Supreme Court actually did bore the hallmarks of a heightened scrutiny case. Under rational basis review, a statute would be presumed to be constitutional and would be upheld, despite its discriminatory effects, if the Court could hypothesize any rational justification for it. But the Supreme Court did not presume Section 3 to be constitutional, and paid no attention to the post-hoc justifications argued by former Solicitor General Paul Clement on behalf of a House of Representatives Committee. Instead, the Supreme Court focused on the legislative history of DOMA, which showed that it was enacted specifically to discriminate against gay people on grounds of moral disapproval. Justice Kennedy focused on Congress’s “avowed purpose” for enacting DOMA. “The principal purpose,” he wrote, “is to impose inequality, not for other reasons like governmental efficiency.” “The result of this more fundamental inquiry,” wrote Judge Reinhardt, “was the Supreme Court’s conclusion that DOMA’s ‘demonstrated purpose raised a most serious question under the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment.’ Windsor thus requires not that we conceive of hypothetical purposes, but that we scrutinize Congress’s actual purposes. Windsor’s ‘careful consideration’ of DOMA’s actual purpose and its failure to consider other unsupported bases is antithetical to the very concept of rational basis review.”
Reinhardt also noted that the Windsor court put the burden on Congress to “justify disparate treatment of the group,” and under rational basis review, the burden is placed on the challenger to prove that there is no rational justification, not on the government to justify its discrimination. And Reinhardt pointed out that in rational basis cases, the court is “ordinarily unconcerned with the inequality that results from the challenged state action,” but that in Windsor, the Court expressed great concern about the inequality imposed on married same-sex couples by DOMA.
“Windsor refuses to tolerate the imposition of a second-class status on gays and lesbians,” wrote Reinhardt. “Section 3 of DOMA violates the equal protection component of the due process clause, Windsor tells us, because ‘it tells those couples, and all the world, that their otherwise valid marriages are unworthy of federal recognition.’ Windsor was thus concerned with the public message sent by DOMA about the status occupied by gays and lesbians in our society. This government-sponsored message was in itself a harm of great constitutional significance.” From this, Reinhardt concluded, “Windsor requires that classifications based on sexual orientation that impose inequality on gays and lesbians and send a message of second-class status be justified by some legitimate purpose.” This, of course, is the hallmark of heightened scrutiny in equal protection cases. “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. In short, Windsor requires heightened scrutiny.”
In this case, Abbott had an interest in avoiding seating jurors that might be biased against it because it was being charged with improperly inflating the price of HIV medications whose patents it controlled. During the voir dire questioning of potential jurors, it became clear that one man was gay due to his references to his partner. The attorney for Abbott questioned him briefly, but elicited no answers that indicated any particular bias against his client. However, he asked to strike the juror. When the attorney for the other party objected, raising the Batson principle, the trial judge questioned whether Batson applied to the case or the circumstances, but asked the attorney whether he had any particular reason for seeking to exclude the juror. The attorney did not specify a reason, and was allowed to use a peremptory (unexplained) challenge to eliminate him from the jury. The 9th Circuit held that this was error. Since sexual orientation discrimination merits heightened scrutiny, the Batson rule applies and because it was clear that the juror was a gay man and, under the circumstances, Abbott’s counsel might entertain the view that gay men would be biased against his client, some valid justification was necessary to sustain the challenge to his jury service.
The California Supreme Court extended the Batson rule to gay jury challenges long ago for purposes of trials in the state courts, but this ruling by the 9th Circuit is the first to extend Batson to such challenges in federal courts. But the ruling is potentially much more consequential–first, because it applies broadly to all sexual orientation discrimination claims, not just juror challenges, and second, because of another case pending before the 9th Circuit and shortly to be argued, Sevcik v. Sandoval, a challenge to Nevada’s ban on same-sex marriage. In Sevcik, the district court, ruling before last year’s Windsor decision, rejected a challenge to the Nevada marriage ban, holding that the court was bound under the 1972 Supreme Court affirmance in Baker v. Nelson to hold that Sevcik had not presented a “substantial federal constitutional question” and that the state’s ban survived rational basis review. Windsor was decided after Sevcik’s appeal to the 9th Circuit was filed. Now the 9th Circuit has ruled that Windsor requires heightened scrutiny of sexual orientation claims. That surely forecasts a reversal in Sevcik, although it is not clear whether the 9th Circuit would remand the case to the trial court for reconsideration under the heightened scrutiny standard or whether the court of appeals would rule as a matter of law under that standard that the Nevada ban is unconstitutional. Either way, the 9th Circuit’s ruling should have immediate consequences for recently filed marriage equality lawsuits in Arizona, Idaho and Oregon, states which are also in the 9th Circuit, as those district courts will be bound to apply heightened scrutiny in deciding those cases.
Lambda Legal had an amicus brief in the case, co-authored by Shelbi D. Day, Tara L. Borelli, and Jon W. Davidson, working from the organization’s Western Regional Office in Los Angeles.