UPDATES & ANALYSIS

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Does Iowa’s constitution require a tougher standard for removing minority jurors? Iowa Supreme Court says no

by Rox Laird | July 7, 2023

The Iowa Supreme Court declined to take up an appellant’s suggestion that the Court apply a more rigorous standard for deciding whether the removal of the only minority-group member from a pool of potential jurors may violate the Iowa Constitution.

Davina Valdez, a Black teacher’s assistant sued the West Des Moines School District and one of its teachers, saying she was discriminated against based on her race. A jury found for the school district. The venire pool from which that jury was picked included one Black member (identified as Juror 13), who was removed by the defendants’ attorney using a “peremptory strike,” which may be used to remove a potential juror without stating a reason.

In her appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court, Valdez raised a number of issues with the Polk County District Court’s rulings at trial, including the judge’s finding that the defendants’ strike of Juror 13 did not violate Valdez’s rights under the U.S. Constitution as articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1986 decision in Batson v. Kentucky. In Batson, the Supreme Court held that the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution guarantees that potential jurors will not be excluded based on race.

The Iowa Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the district court’s rulings in a June 30 decision written by Justice Dana Oxley. [Disclosure: Nyemaster Goode attorneys David T. Bower and Logan Eliasen of Nyemaster Goode represented the defendants in this appeal.]

Valdez also appealed the district court’s dismissal of school district teacher Desira Johnson from the case. The district court concluded that Johnson was exempt from individual liability because she did not have supervisory powers over Valdez.

The Supreme Court agreed. Regarding Valdez’s hostile working environment claim under the Iowa Civil Rights Act, the Court held that nonsupervisory employees such as Johnson cannot be held responsible for a hostile working environment “because they are not responsible for creating or maintaining the working environment and lack the authority to correct or prevent an abusive environment.”

Similarly, the Court declined to extend the reach of wrongful discharge claims beyond those with authority to discharge an employee, saying “It is enough to recognize that [the wrongful discharge claim] does not extend far enough to hold Johnson liable in this case.”

The justices also agreed with the district court’s conclusion on Valdez’s Batson challenge.

At trial, in response to Valdez’s challenge to its peremptory strike, the defendants cited three race-neutral justifications for removing Juror 13, including that he hedged in response to a question about whether he could initially see the two parties as being on equal footing, and not that the defendants “must have done something wrong” just because they are defendants in the case. “Yes,” he replied, then adding, “But, I mean, something happened.”

The trial judge accepted the defendants’ explanation that Juror 13’s response raised a concern about his ability to hear the case with an open mind, and the Supreme Court deferred to the district court’s credibility determinations underlying its decision overruling Valdez’s objection.

On appeal, Valdez argued that if the district court’s denial of her challenge were to be affirmed based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s Batson standard, the Iowa Supreme Court should move “beyond Batson” and apply a heightened standard under the Iowa Constitution. She cited three sections of the Bill of Rights in the Iowa Constitution, including those guaranteeing equal protection and the right to a jury trial.

Specifically, Valdez urged the Court to adopt a higher standard for strikes of “last minority” jurors, as in her case, and to weigh justifications cited for such strikes in the light most favorable to the party challenging the strike.

The Court rejected both proposals.

“To the extent that striking the last minority juror has enhanced constitutional significance,” Justice Oxley wrote, “its significance implicates fair-cross-section concerns more than equal protection concerns,” referring to the right to jury drawn from a fair cross section of the community. Even then, Oxley wrote, “a party is not constitutionally entitled to a petit jury (as opposed to a jury pool) of any particular composition.”

Moreover, she wrote, “We have already rejected a similar request to apply a heightened analysis when a party strikes the last minority juror” in State v. Veal (2019).

As for weighing reasons for such peremptory strikes in the light most favorable to the party challenging the strike, Oxley said that would “effectively preclude the district court from even making these credibility determinations if there was any evidence to the contrary. We do not see how this furthers the Batson inquiry of identifying strikes premised on racial discrimination.”

The Court noted that other states have addressed Batson’s “perceived shortcomings” through state law or court rules. “Contrary to Valdez’s request that we construe our state constitution to require similar reforms,” Oxley wrote, “the bulk of movement in this area has come through legislative or rulemaking processes, not through constitutional interpretation.”

 

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