“Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties. Cases in the series can be found by issue and by judge at this link.
Trump Sixth Circuit judge Chad Readler cast the deciding vote to affirm a lower court decision to reject an African American man’s claim that African Americans were systematically excluded from grand juries in the Tennessee county where he was indicted in 1968. The June 2020 case is Allen v. Batts.
William Allen, an African American man, was indicted for murder in Davidson County, Tennessee in 1968. He challenged his indictment and subsequent conviction, claiming that African Americans were “systematically excluded” from grand juries in the county. As documented in a post-conviction challenge filed in 1971, between 1958 and 1971, although the county’s general population was about 20% African American, only 26 African Americans served on county grand juries during that period, around 5%. The three county trial judges had “unfettered discretion” in selecting grand juries and denied intentional bias, although at least one admitted that one factor was that he did not know many African Americans. Both state and federal courts denied Allen’s claims as of 1974, ruling that he had not shown that African Americans were “purposefully and systematically” excluded from grand juries.
Because Allen received a revised sentence in 2007, he was able to file another federal post-conviction habeas corpus challenge, and again raised the grand jury discrimination issue. A district court rejected his petition, and he appealed to the Sixth Circuit.
In a 2-1 decision in which Judge Readler cast the deciding vote, the Sixth Circuit affirmed and again rejected the challenge. The majority maintained that under restrictions on habeas corpus petitions adopted by Congress, Allen was required to prove that the Tennessee state court that rejected his claim in 1973 was both wrong and “patently unreasonable.” Based on that standard, the majority concluded that Allen could not prove his argument.
Judge Karen Nelson Moore strongly dissented. Initially, she pointed out that the Sixth Circuit had granted habeas relief in 1992 to another Davidson County resident who raised a “virtually identical” grand jury claim as Allen, which “essentially dictates a ruling in Allen’s favor.” She went on to point out additional evidence supporting Allen, such as the fact that a 1973 change in the county so that grand jurors were selected by random draw “immediately produced more equitable results,” and that the odds that judges would have “randomly selected” grand juries with as few African-Americans as in the 1958-71 period were approximately a billion to one.
Judge Moore explained that the 1973 state court decision “egregiously” misinterpreted a 1972 Supreme Court decision on grand jury discrimination, which ruled that a person like Allen could establish an initial clam of discrimination through the type of statistical evidence that Allen used, and that a state then had to rebut that showing by proving that the selection system was truly neutral and not discriminatory. Moore pointed out that the state did not meet that burden in this case, especially since the Supreme Court had specifically ruled that “affirmations of good faith” as in this case were insufficient.
In short, Judge Moore concluded, Allen had a “highly compelling case for habeas relief,” under almost identical circumstances as in the 1992 case where the Sixth Circuit in fact granted such a remedy – “same county, same year of indictment, same grand jury system, same underlying statistical discrepancy, and same judicial ‘affirmations of good faith.’” While the constitutional rights of the victim in the 1992 case were vindicated, Moore noted, “Allen’s rights were (and, with the majority’s blessing, now continue to be) ignored.” Readler’s deciding vote ensured that result.