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Statement: “We are all the same inside”
SAN FRANCISCO — People cannot be kept off a jury just because they are gay, a federal appeals court decided Tuesday.
The important decision expands juror protections. It also will be used to challenge other laws that limit gay rights, activists say.
People cannot be excluded from juries because of their sex or race. But until Tuesday's decision, they could be kept off some juries if they were gay.
The decision by a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was unanimous. It overturned a previous jury's verdict in a trial involving an AIDS drug. In that case, the judges said the trial was conducted unfairly, because a gay man was excluded from the jury without a good reason.
Ruling Affects 9 Western States
California state courts do not allow gay people to be excluded from juries for no other reason. Tuesday’s ruling extended the restriction to federal courts in California and courts in eight other Western states.
The decision will also make it harder to justify laws that treat gays and lesbians differently. This includes laws against same-sex marriage, lawyers said. Gays are fighting laws in four Western states that prevent men from marrying men and women from marrying women. In those states, only men and women may marry each other.
Judge Stephen Reinhardt said laws that discriminate must be closely evaluated. It's important to ensure that courts neither create nor reinforce bias or second-class status. Reinhardt was one of the three judges who said Tuesday that excluding gay jurors violated their constitutional right to equal protection.
Gay rights activists applauded the ruling and predicted it would help them win the right to gay marriage in the other Western states. In California, same-sex marriage is legal.
“This is really a very big deal,” said Jon W. Davidson, the legal director of Lambda Legal, a group that fights for gay rights. “It is likely to have a significant impact on other cases.”
David Codell serves as the constitutional legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights. He said the decision would make it “exceedingly difficult” for states to discriminate against gays.
An AIDS Court Case
The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by a drug company, now called GlaxoSmithKline, against Abbott Laboratories, another drug company. The case involved a decision by Abbott to raise the price of an AIDS drug. This move angered the gay community. AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, is a deadly disease transmitted through the exchange of bodily fluids. This includes sexual contact. In many developed countries, many of those with AIDS are gay. It is a source of discrimination against gays.
During the 2011 trial, a lawyer for Abbott prevented a man who revealed that he had a male partner from being on the jury. The man also said he had friends in the early stages of AIDS.
The Abbott lawyer said he had “no idea” whether the juror was gay. But he did not give another reason for keeping him off the jury. Before a jury trial, the lawyers for both sides pick the men and women of the jury.
After the trial, the jury decided in favor of Abbott, and eventually GlaxoSmithKline claimed that Abbott excluded the juror because he was gay.
On appeal, Abbott gave several reasons for excluding the man. But the appeal judges said they were just excuses.
“Jury service is one of the most important responsibilities of an American citizen,” Reinhardt wrote. “It gives gay and lesbian individuals a means of (expressing) their values and a voice in resolving controversies" that affect their lives.
Treating People As Individuals
The court said that gay jurors do not have to tell anyone they're gay. But if they do say something, they cannot be prevented from sitting on a jury because of it.
Keeping gay people off juries sends a false message, Reinhardt wrote. It gives the impression that "gays and lesbians could not be trusted to reason fairly on issues of great (importance) to the community or the nation,” he wrote.
Lambda’s Davidson said he did not know how often gay jurors were kept off juries. The issue has come up in about half a dozen cases across the country. Lawyers do not need to give a reason if they don't select a particular juror. But if asked, they must provide a reason that doesn't discriminate.
“People have stereotypes,” the gay rights lawyer said. “They think gay people will be liberal or, if it is a police case, may think gay people are against the police. Or a lawyer might think, ‘I just don’t think I will relate well to a gay person on a jury.’"
But the point is, he said, the legal system should treat people as individuals, not stereotypes.
Lawyers can often get around the anti-discrimination requirement. But “if the real reason is bias, they have to be quick on their feet to come up with another reason, and it has to be consistent with how they treated other jurors,” Davidson said.Abbott could challenge the federal court ruling by asking a larger panel of judges to take another look at the case. Another option is to appeal to the Supreme Court.