Fairness in challenging jurors

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THE Supreme Court of the United States has taken the country another step along the path of eliminating racism from the justice system. The court ruled Wednesday that prosecutors may not use their ``peremptory challenges'' to exclude potential jurors on the basis of race.

A prosecutor or defense attorney can still remove, by challenging ``for cause'' a potential juror whom pretrial questioning reveals to have racist attitudes or be otherwise unable to serve as a fair and impartial juror. But prosecutors will no longer find it quite so easy to pack a jury with people of a color other than the defendant's, in hopes of getting a conviction more easily.

This ruling is consistent with other recent decisions of the moderate-to-conservative Burger court: Philosophically it supports individual rights and the purity of the judicial system, but does not set forth a structure for adhering to the ruling.

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Thus it will take more court rulings down the road for the full effect of this week's case, Batson v. Kentucky, to be felt. How are prosecutors to be prevented from using race as the unspoken reason for peremptory challenges? Will judges have to take more-active roles in jury selection? Will defense attorneys charge prosecutors with racism at the point of jury selection? Or will they ``save'' charges of racism as grounds for appeal if their clients are convicted?

The ruling will surely open the way to a battle over the peremptory challenge itself, which serves as a safety valve in jury selections: Lawyers on both sides are able to eliminate potential jurors with whom they are for whatever reason -- or hunch -- uncomfortable. This helps focus attention on the issue at hand -- guilt or innocence of the defendant.

The ruling cries out for clearer definition of peremptory challenges, as against challenges for cause. That will be the work of later cases. The ruling in this case is a welcome one.

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