A multibillion-dollar case between two giant pharmaceutical companies has unexpectedly turned into a gay rights legal fight that raises questions over whether lawyers can remove potential jurors based solely on their sexual orientation.
The case before the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco centers on whether Abbott Laboratories broke antitrust laws when it increased the price of its popular AIDS drug Norvir by 400 percent in 2007. But attention is also on the panel's look at whether Abbott wrongfully removed a gay juror in the case, brought by competitor SmithKline Beecham.
The appeals court gave little indication Wednesday whether it would give gays the same status that race and gender play in jury selection.
The court is expected to rule at a later date.
The drug's cost increase angered many in the gay community. SmithKline has been joined by gay rights activists Lambda Legal and other public interest groups, who filed their own legal argument urging the court to protect gays from getting removed from juries for no reason.
SmithKline Beecham says the cost increase was meant to harm the launch of its new AIDS treatment, which requires use of Norvir.
The company also contends that "Juror B" was removed simply because he was gay.
"It's a big deal," said Vik Amar, a professor at the University of California, Davis.
Before trials, lawyers for both sides are allowed to use several "challenges" each to remove someone from the jury pool without needing legal justification.
Abbott says it removed "Juror B" for three reasons, none having anything to do with his sexual orientation. Lawyers said they felt his impartiality was compromised because he was the only potential juror who had heard of the SmithKline treatment, that he was also the only prospective juror who had lost a friend to AIDS and that he worked for courts.
The nation's top court has never ruled on sexual orientation and the removal of jurors.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 1986 prohibited lawyers from using their challenges to remove a potential juror from a case because of race. Eight years later, the high court added gender to the prohibition.
The California Supreme Court has barred the removal of gays from jury pools without justification since 2000, but its rulings aren't binding on federal courts.
"The discrimination at issue here is particularly harmful, because it reinforces historical invidious discrimination within the court system and undermines the integrity of the judicial system," Lambda wrote to the court.
The Associated Press