I sometimes imagine conference at the U.S. Supreme Court as a bit like some holiday dinners I have attended, events dominated by comments like, “Some people think it’s okay to take the last of the gravy,” or “That pie looks so delicious it makes me wish I could eat gluten.” The justices are masters of many rhetorical modes, but some of them do passive aggression especially well.
Those talents were on ripe display Monday, as the Court granted relief to a number of criminal defendants. A clear previous precedent dictated the result in each case. Nonetheless, some of the justices don’t like those precedents, and some of them (I certainly am not the kind of quarrelsome person who would name Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas) don’t like it when any petitioner who has already been convicted—no matter in how grotesque a prior trial—catches a break.
The marquee case Monday was Foster v. Chatman, a racism-in-jury-selection case to end all such cases. In 1987, Timothy Tyrone Foster, a black man, committed murder during a botched burglary. At his trial in Georgia state court, prosecutors used “peremptory challenges” against all four black potential jurors. Foster’s lawyers objected, citing a Supreme Court cased called Batson v. Kentucky. Under Batson, the use of race in jury selection is a violation of the rights both of the defendant and the juror. When a racial pattern in challenges arises, a defendant may demand a “Batson hearing,” at which the prosecution must be given a chance to explain their reasoning; in Foster’s case, they offered “neutral,” non-race-based explanations for challenging the black jurors, and a Georgia trial court accepted those explanations.