Supreme Court reprimands Detroit judge who insists on representative racial composition for jury
This week, five Justices of Michigan's Supreme Court overturned a wrongful death verdict arising out of a shuttle bus fatality at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. The Justices rejected Wayne County Circuit Judge Michael Callahan's decision to refuse to discharge a black juror who was challenged by the the Defendant Ampco System Parking. Judge Callahan, who is white, essentially challenged the Supreme Court to overturn him by refusing to allow Ampco its "peremptory" right to dismiss three jurors without cause, stating that he would seat a jury that reflected the racial composition of the community unless reversed by a higher court.
The jury impaneled for the trial included the challenged juror and two other blacks, out of eight regulars and alternates. Several years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court held that systematically excluding jurors on the basis of race--as was once common-place in some southern states--is a violation of the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment. Since that holding, both the U.S. and Michigan Supreme Court have expanded its impact by rulings that apply it to civil as well as criminal cases, and to all decisions relating to selection of jurors (that is, whether to exclude or include jurors on the basis of race). While a coincidental, unintentional error in the use of peremptory challenges does not automatically rise to the level of a denial of constitutional rights, the majority in this case did not feel it could overlook the trial judge's stated intention to keep a juror for the express purpose of seating a "racially-representative" jury panel, in the absence of a finding of racial bias by counsel attempting to challenge the juror.
As a result of the high court's decision, the verdict in favor of the family of Shirley Pellegrino was overturned and the case must be tried again. The two dissenting Justices would have held that the refusal to recognize the Defendant's peremptory challenge did not result in prejudice to the corporate Defendant.