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The Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals shouldn’t have second-guessed a superior court judge’s approval of a peremptory challenge in a California drug case, according to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a unanimous opinion reversing the lower court Wednesday, the Supreme Court found that a Ninth Circuit panel, overstepping its bounds, had “improperly substituted its evaluation of the record for that of the state trial court.” For California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, the state government’s victory may have been particularly heady. Rice v. Collins, 06 C.D.O.S. 469, was the first case he ever personally argued before the nation’s highest court. For Charles Hobson, a lawyer who filed an amicus curiae siding with Lockyer’s office, the opinion is good news for his group, the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which advocates for crime victims’ interests. In his view, it decreases the “wiggle room” for federal habeas corpus courts considering a Batson appeal, which Hobson claims is an increasingly popular tool for defense attorneys trying to overturn Three-Strikes convictions. And for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, the case of Three-Strikes defendant Steven Collins illustrated the “fundamental failings” of the peremptory challenge system and the so-called Batson test that judges use when a defendant claims the prosecution is trying to kick out a potential juror because of race. In a concurrence joined by Justice David Souter, Breyer wrote that a lawyer might make a peremptory challenge on instinct � and may not know themselves whether impermissible stereotyping plays a part. Plus, higher courts must give trial judges considerable leeway when examining those motivations. As a result, Breyer concluded, “I continue to believe that we should reconsider Batson’s test and the peremptory challenge system as a whole.” Wednesday’s case got its start in Los Angeles Superior Court, where Collins was convicted of cocaine possession. The verdict exposed him to sentencing under the state’s Three-Strikes law, which can add considerable years to prison terms for certain repeat offenders. At trial, Collins claimed that the prosecutor in his case struck an African-American woman from the jury panel because of her race. Though the trial judge rejected his challenge, Collins raised it again on appeal. While the U.S. Supreme Court did find a reference the prosecutor made to the juror’s gender “troubling,” the high court concluded that the superior court judge had reasonably allowed the strike based on two explanations for the strike: The prosecutor claimed she was too young and had rolled her eyes during questioning. Under the Batson test, a prosecutor has to offer race-neutral reasons for a peremptory challenge, and the court has to decide if there’s been purposeful discrimination. The Ninth Circuit evaluated the case under the correct standard, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which says a federal court can only grant a petition for a writ of habeas corpus if the state court made “an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote. But in looking at that standard, the Ninth Circuit’s interpretation of the trial record was “debatable,” Kennedy added. The trial judge was in the best position to judge the prosecutor’s credibility, and nothing in the record showed that the judge “had no permissible alternative” but to reject the prosecutor’s explanations for booting the juror. “Reasonable minds might disagree about the prosecutor’s credibility, but on habeas review that does not suffice to supersede the trial court’s credibility determination,” Kennedy wrote.

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