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Appeals court victory for rights of gay jurors

SAN FRANCISCO -- A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that attorneys in federal cases may not dismiss prospective jurors on the basis of the jurors’ sexual orientation.

In its opinion, the court held that laws and government actions that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation are subject to heightened scrutiny under the U.S. Constitution and may not impose stigma or second-class status based on sexual orientation.

Today’s decision in Smithkline Beecham Corp. v. Abbott Laboratories involved the dismissal of a gay man as a juror in a federal trial.

The Ninth Circuit concluded that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in United States v. Windsor, which struck down Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, requires courts to carefully scrutinize all laws and governmental actions that discriminate based on sexual orientation.

“Permitting a strike based on sexual orientation could send the false message that gays and lesbians could not be trusted to reason fairly on issues of great import to the community or the nation,” the appellate panel said.

“Windsor requires that when state action discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation, we must examine its actual purposes and carefully consider the resulting inequality to ensure that our most fundamental institutions neither send nor reinforce messages of stigma or second-class status. In short, Windsor requires heightened scrutiny,” Judge Stephen Reinhardt said, writing for the panel.

David Codell, Esq., constitutional litigation director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said the ruling is monumental.

“Today’s ruling by the Ninth Circuit, which covers much of the western United States, is a major advance for equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people,” he said. “The court recognized that laws that treat persons as second-class citizens based on sexual orientation are anathema to the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equality. Today’s ruling will make it exceedingly difficult for states to justify laws that discriminate based on sexual orientation.”