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R.J. Reynolds v. Enochs - Jury Selection - Peremptory Challenges and Race and Gender Neutral Explanations

In the R.J. Reynolds v. Enochs case, R.J. Reynolds and Phillip Morris appealed the final judgment entered in favor of the Plaintiff. The appellate court addressed the Defendants’ argument that the trial court erred by failing to engage in the requisite genuineness analysis in granting Plaintiff’s peremptory challenges to two prospective jurors.

During voir dire, the Plaintiff used their first peremptory challenge to strike a prospective juror who was a white male. The Defendants objected based on gender and race grounds. Despite the prospective juror being a white male, the trial court noted everybody is a protected class under the case law, and once the Plaintiff said he was being stricken for being a smoker, the trial court accepted that as a “gender-and-race-neutral reason.”

The Defendants again objected to Plaintiff’s use of a peremptory challenge to strike another white male. Plaintiff claimed the prospective juror had said he thought tobacco companies had “zero” responsibility for the smoking history of his family members. In overruling Defendants’ objection, the trial court stated that this “certainly satisfies the Melbourne test.”

Before the jury was sworn, Defendants renewed their objections. Noting that there were white males in the jury, the trial court overruled the objections.

The appellate court outlined the three-part procedure that must be employed in Florida whenever a peremptory strike is challenged as discriminatory:

First, the objecting party must make a timely objection, show that the venire person is a member of a distinct protected group, and request that the court ask the striking party to provide a reason for the strike. Second, the burden shifts to the proponent of the strike to come forward with a race-neutral or gender-neutral explanation. Third, if the explanation is facially race-neutral or gender-neutral, the court must determine whether the explanation is a pretext “given all the circumstances surrounding the strike.”

The appellate court quoted from case law that with regard to the third-step genuineness inquiry, the Melbourne test does not require a judge to articulate their thought process on the issue of pretext, or specifically use the word ‘genuine’. The trial court’s role is to weight the genuineness of a reason “just as it would any other disputed fact.”

In the present case, appellate court believed the record overall reflected that the trial court did determine the proffered race-and-gender-neutral reasons were genuine. Specifically, the trial court had noted the race and gender makeup of the jurors when overruling Defendants objections, and commented that the stricken prospective juror had said he thought tobacco companies had “zero” responsibility “with an emphasis.”

In affirming the trial court, the appellate court emphasized that it is important for trial courts to make an on-the-record genuineness inquiry so as to allow meaningful appellate review.

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