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Hernandez v. Texas

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Defendant challenged his indictment and conviction as having been obtained in violation of the Equal Protection Clause because individuals of Mexican descent were systematically excluded from serving as jury commissioner, grand jurors, and petit jurors in the county where he was tried.

    Facts.

    Defendant was convicted of murder and on appeal argued that his indictment and conviction were obtained in violation of the Equal Protection Clause because individuals of Mexican descent were systematically excluded from serving as jury commissioner, grand jurors, and petit jurors in the county where he was tried. Defendant presented evidence that residents in the community distinguished between “whites” and “Mexicans;” that most individuals of Mexican descent did not participate in business or community groups; children of Mexican descent were required to attend a segregated school until the fourth grade; at least one restaurant in town displayed a sign announcing that it would not serve Mexicans; the courthouse contained a bathroom designated for “Colored Men” and “Hombres Aqui” (“Men Here”); 14 percent of county residents had a Mexican or Latino last name; 11 percent of all men over age 21 in the county had Mexican or Latino last names; approximately seven percent of the taxpayers in the county were of Mexican descent; in the last 25 years not one person with a Mexican or Latino last name appears to have served on a jury commission, a grand jury or petit jury; and there were men of Mexican or Latino descent in the county, eligible to serve in those positions. The government presented the testimony of five jury commissioners that they did not discriminate against those of Mexican or Latino descent when selecting jurors, but that they selected those they felt most qualified for the position. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari in the case. [The remainder of the procedural posture does not appear in the casebook.]

    Issue.

    Does the Equal Protection Clause apply to discrimination against any group that is considered a separate class within a community and singled out for different treatment?

    Held.

    (Warren, C.J.) Yes. The Equal Protection Clause applies to prevent discrimination against any group that is considered a separate class within a community and singled out by law for different treatment. Discrimination is established when the law singles out such a group for different treatment without being based on a reasonable classification. Therefore, the exclusion of a group of people from jury service for reasons other than race or color can deprive a defendant who is a member of that group of equal protection of the law. The State’s claim that the Fourteenth Amendment only applies to two classes, whites and blacks, is wrong. Community prejudices change and over time different groups may be singled out as separate from the majority of the community and may need equal protection of the law. Whether such a group exists is a question of fact. Here, Defendant does not allege that the jury selection statute is discriminatory on its face. It is discriminatory against those of Mexican heritage as applied. The evidence presented demonstrates that people of Mexican heritage were considered a separate class within the county. Members of that group were eligible to serve on juries, but were systematically excluded from doing so. Defendant has established a prima facie case of discrimination against this group and the subsequent denial of equal protection. Although the jury commissioners testified that they did not act with discriminatory intent, this testimony is not enough to rebut Defendant’s evidence to the contrary. If the Court accepted the assertion of public officials of innocent intent as justification for discriminatory impact, the equal protection requirement would be illusory. It is not believable that of the 6000 jurors called in the last 25 years, it is by chance only that none have been of Mexican descent. The results show discrimination, whether conscious or not. Reversed.

    Discussion.

    The Court further clarified that the Equal Protection Clause does not require proportional representation of all of the various ethnic groups that make up a community on every jury. Defendant’s right to equal protection was the right to be indicted and tried by juries from which his class was not systematically excluded. He did not have a right to members of Mexican descent on his individual jury. The juries had to be selected from among all qualified individuals, no matter their ethnic background.


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