Racial Bias Trumps Juror Secrecy in Pena-Rodriguez v Colorado
A divided U.S. Supreme Court recently held that while jury deliberations should normally be kept secret, racial or ethnic bias mandates an exception to the rule. The court decided Pena-Rodriguez v Colorado, 580 U. S. ____ (2017) by a vote of 5-3.
Facts of Pena-Rodriguez v Colorado
A Colorado jury convicted petitioner Miguel Angel Pena-Rodriguez of harassment and unlawful sexual contact. Shortly thereafter, two jurors told defense counsel that, during deliberations, Juror H.C. had expressed anti-Hispanic bias toward Pena-Rodriguez and his alibi witness. “I think he did it because he’s Mexican, and Mexican men take whatever they want,” the juror said of the defendant. One of the jurors also stated that H.C. “believed that [Petitioner] was guilty because in his experience as an ex-law enforcement officer, Mexican men had a bravado that caused them to believe they could do whatever they wanted with women.”
The court acknowledged H.C.’s apparent bias but denied Pena-Rodriguez’s motion for a new trial on the ground that Colorado Rule of Evidence 606(b) generally prohibits a juror from testifying as to statements made during deliberations in a proceeding inquiring into the validity of the verdict. The Colorado Court of Appeals affirmed, agreeing that H.C.’s alleged statements did not fall within an exception to Rule 606(b). The Colorado Supreme Court affirmed. It cited Tanner v. United States, 483 U. S. 107, and Warger v. Shauers, 574 U. S. ___, both of which rejected constitutional challenges to the federal no-impeachment rule as applied to evidence of juror misconduct or bias.
Majority Decision in Pena-Rodriguez v Colorado
The majority sided with Pena-Rodriguez. “Where a juror makes a clear statement indicating that he or she relied on racial stereotypes or animus to convict a criminal defendant, the Sixth Amendment requires that the no impeachment rule give way in order to permit the trial court to consider the evidence of the juror’s statement and any resulting denial of the jury trial guarantee,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote.
In reaching its decision, the majority highlighted that the no-impeachment rule “has substantial merit, promoting full and vigorous discussion by jurors and providing consider able assurance that after being discharged they will not be summoned to recount their deliberations or otherwise harassed.” Nonetheless, it also emphasized that “[r]acial bias implicates unique historical, constitutional and institutional concerns. and, if left unaddressed, would risk systemic injury to the ad ministration of justice.”
In balancing the two competing interests, the majority ultimately concluded that racial bias warrants special consideration in light of the Sixth Amendment. “A constitutional rule that racial bias in the justice system must be addressed—including, in some instances, after a verdict has been entered—is necessary to prevent a systemic loss of confidence in jury verdicts, a confidence that is a central premise of the Sixth Amendment trial right.”
The majority did caution that the new rule has limits. “Not every offhand comment indicating racial bias or hostility will justify” an investigation into jurors’ deliberations, Justice Kennedy wrote. “For the inquiry to proceed, there must be a showing that one or more jurors made statements exhibiting overt racial bias that cast serious doubt on the fairness and impartiality of the jury’s deliberations and resulting verdict.”
Dissent in Pena-Rodriguez v Colorado
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. authored a dissenting opinion, which was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Clarence Thomas. “This is a startling development,” Justice Alito argued, “and although the court tries to limit the degree of intrusion, it is doubtful that there are principled grounds for preventing the expansion of today’s holding.”
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Congress of the United States begun and held at the City of New-York, on Wednesday the fourth of March, one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine.
THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.