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Clarifying jury selection

Resuming its increased use of deciding cases without full briefing or argument, the Supreme Court ruled summarily on Monday that a trial judge need not personally observe a potential juror’s behavior in deciding later whether that juror was denied a seat on the panel because of race, despite the prosecutor’s claim that she was excluded because of her demeanor under questioning.  No prior ruling of the Court, the Justices said in an unsigned, apparently unanimous opinion, requires that the judge have been on hand during jury selection in order to evaluate a claimed violation of Batson v. Kentucky, when the use of a peremptory strike was based on a claim of juror demeanor.  The ruling came in the case of Thaler v. Haynes (09-2730).

In a second summary ruling, the Court reiterated that claims that police used excessive force on a suspect are to be evaluated on the basis of the nature of the force used, not on whether the individual suffered any injury during the incident.  The ruling in Wilkins v. Gaddy (08-10914) overturned a lower federal court ruling that dismissed an excessive force claim because the suspect’s injuries were minimal.  The new ruling was based on the Court’s 1992 decision in Hudson v. McMillian.  On Monday, Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Antonin Scalia, supported the result in Wilkins, but repeated his earlier argument that the Hudson decision was decided wrongly.

The Court has now decided eleven cases this Term by the summary method (see SCOTUSblog’s recent post on the unusually large number of summary dispositions this Term).  Most such rulings tend to be simple applications of prior precedents, although that has not always been true this Term.

In another order Monday, the Court agreed to decide whether a county or city government may be found to have violated someone’s civil rights, if the action did not result from an official policy and the victim is only seeking future court-ordered restrictions on officials, rather than money damages.  That is the first question raised in Los Angeles County v. Humphries (09-350), and review was restricted to that issue.

The Court also granted a second new case, testing whether a defense lawyer in a murder trial provides ineffective aid to his client by failing to summon as a witness an expert on blood evidence who would help support the defense claim that someone else committed the killing.  That issue was raised by the state of California in Harrington v. Richter (09-587).   The Court granted review of that issue, but also added a new question to be briefed and argued: whether the 1996 federal law limiting habeas rights (AEDPA) requires a federal court to defer to a decision of a state court, when the strate court had disposed of a claim summarily — including a claim of ineffective counsel under the Court’s 1984 ruling in Strickland v. Washington.