Supreme Court cites NIU law professor’s article

By Mark Mazzone

There are few things more satisfying than getting to the pinnacle of one’s chosen profession. That pinnacle is getting to be a familiar place for NIU Law Professor Joel Swift.

Swift, for the second year in a row, had one of his articles cited in a Supreme Court opinion.

This time, Justice Harry Blackmun, speaking on behalf of a 7-2 majority, referred to “Defendants, Racism and the Peremptory Challenge,” which appeared in the spring 1991 issue of Columbia Human Rights Law Review.

The decision clarifies the high court’s position on the peremptory challenge, with regard to criminal defendants.

“In most simple terms, it is not only unconstitutional for the state to discriminate on the basis of race. It is also unconstitutional for criminal defendants to do so,” Swift said.

Swift said the case involves an incident in which a group of black patrons of a dry cleaning store were attacked by its white owners in Albany, Ga.

Due to the racial makeup of Albany, it was statistically likely that the defense attorneys would be able to dismiss all of the potential black jurors from the 42-person jury panel, he said.

“This was clearly a case in which race was an issue,” Swift said.

When the defense attorneys appeared ready to use their peremptory challenges in this way, the prosecutor made motions to prevent all of the black jurors from being dismissed, he said.

The trial court and the Georgia Supreme Court ruled in favor of the defense. The case was then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“If a party to a criminal case could prevent people from serving on a jury just because of race, public confidence would be terribly undermined,” Swift said.

“There’s no doubt that race matters. Race shapes our attitudes, beliefs and views about people and events,” he said. “The culture in which we are raised affects how we view many issues.”

Swift said the best juries “represent as broad a range of our cultural views and perspectives as possible.”

Swift said he was notified that his article was cited in the opinion on the same day by a reporter form the National Law Journal.

“I was (surprised), though perhaps I shouldn’t have been. I knew the case was before the court, I knew the decision was going to be made and I knew that I had written something (relevant),” he said.