The Supreme Court Rules Against Verdicts Involving Racism
The Supreme Court made a big decision this week.
On Monday, five of eight justices ruled that a verdict in a court case could be thrown out it is determined that racism played a role during the jury's deliberation.
For his official opinion on the case, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote,
Racial bias implicates unique historical, constitutional and institutional concerns. An effort to address the most grave and serious statements of racial bias is not an effort to perfect the jury but to ensure that our legal system remains capable of coming ever closer to the promise of equal treatment under the law that is so central to a functioning democracy.
In terms of what the decision means for the future, here's one conclusion we can draw. If a jury member is found to have used racist reasoning while deciding a verdict, that same verdict can be nullified and a new trial can be ordered.
After all, that is exactly what happened in the case that brought this subject to the Supreme Court in the first place.
Here are the details: In 2010, Miguel Angel Peña Rodriguez was on trail in Colorado for sexual assault. Peña Rodriguez had not been convicted for a felony, but had still be convicted for three misdemeanors, which yielded a sentence of two years probation.
After that sentence was levied, though, it was revealed that at a juror had insisted Peña Rodriguez was guilty because, in part, of Mexican heritage.
According to the New York Times, the juror, referred to in legal documents as "HC," said during deliberations,
I think he did it because he's Mexican, and Mexican men take whatever they want.
Another juror told the New York Times even more info about HC's conduct during deliberations, saying,
He said that where he used to patrol, nine times out of 10 Mexican men were guilty of being aggressive toward women and young girls.
So, Peña Rodriguez appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court, arguing that he had no been ensured a fair and impartial trial, which each citizen is entitled to, per the sixth amendment of the Constitution.
Colorado's Supreme Court ruled against Peña Rodriguez by a 4-3 margin. The majority there ruled to protect the secrecy of juries (with respect to the "no-impeachment" rule, which restricts jurors from testifying after a verdict) rather than protect the right to an impartial trial (with respect to the sixth amendment).
The US Supreme Court, however, did the opposite. It ruled that maintaining impartiality was a priority.
The minority of justices, for their part, argued that a dangerous precedent would be set for losing defendants to do two things: probe jurors after trials and seek new trials based on different forms of discrimination.
Justice Kennedy rebutted that argument, however, stating that there's precedent that proves the opposite; in the 17 states that already have discrimination measures for jurors, few problems have occurred.
As the preceding discussion makes clear, the Court relies on the experiences of the 17 jurisdictions that have recognized a racial-bias exception to the no-impeachment rule—some for over half a century—with no signs of an increase in juror harassment or a loss of juror willingness to engage in searching and candid deliberations.
Going forward, if a juror makes a clear statement of bias during deliberations, a judge can question the impartiality of the jury.
The Supreme Court's ruling on Monday makes that clear now.