KEEPING people off juries because of their sex is just as unlawful as excluding them based on their race, the Supreme Court ruled April 19.
By a 6-to-3 vote in an Alabama case, the court said the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection bars gender-based jury selection.
In a series of decisions since 1986, the court had barred lawyers from excluding potential black jurors because of their race. But lower courts split over extending those rulings to exclusions based on gender.
The high court's decision further erodes lawyers' traditional use of peremptory, or automatic, challenges to remove potential jurors without having to explain why.
``With respect to jury service, African-Americans and women share a history of total exclusion, a history which came to an end for women many years after the embarrassing chapter in our history came to an end for African-Americans,'' Justice Harry Blackmun wrote for the court.
The decision is a victory for a paternity lawsuit defendant who says his rights were violated when a women-only jury decided he fathered a boy born four years ago. Alabama authorities sued James Bowman, contending he fathered Phillip Rhett Bowman Bible. The boy was born to Teresia Bible on May 16, 1989, and a blood test showed a high probability that Mr. Bowman is Phillip's father.
A jury of 12 women decided against Bowman after a 1991 trial in Jackson County and ordered him to pay $415 a month in child support.
There were 23 women and 10 men in the jury pool for Bowman's trial. Lawyers for the state used 10 peremptory challenges to exclude 9 men and one woman. Bowman's lawyers removed the last male potential juror.
Alabama courts ruled that keeping men off the jury, even if gender-motivated, did not violate the equal-protection rights of either Bowman or any of the men excluded. The Supreme Court said the Alabama courts were wrong.
Judge Blackmun said Alabama ``seems to assume that gross generalizations that would be deemed impermissible if made on the basis of race are somehow permissible when made on the basis of gender.''
He added: ``Discrimination in jury selection, whether based on race or on gender, causes harm to the litigants, the community, and the individual jurors who are wrongfully excluded from participation in the judicial process.'' @HEADBRIEF = House panel cuts into health plan
PRESIDENT Clinton plans to travel to Detroit on April 25 to further promote his health-care reform, after campaigning for his plan this week.
Meanwhile, a House panel is scuttling Mr. Clinton's mandatory insurance-purchasing alliances even before formally beginning its work.
After a caucus of Democratic members of the House Education and Labor Committee, Rep. Pat Williams (D) of Montana, said his subcommittee will work instead from a plan that lets the states decide whether to create voluntary or mandatory purchasing cooperatives or to have none at all.
And Hillary Rodham Clinton, at a town meeting in Baltimore, expressed fear that the country is headed toward a two-class system dominated by big insurers and for-profit hospital chains if Congress fails to enact major changes.
``That is the nightmare I see coming if we do not reform this health-care system,'' the first lady said at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.