SCOTUS Ruling Delivers Blow to Racial Bias in the Courtroom

Affirming that justice should indeed be blind, the Supreme Court on Monday ruled that in cases where a juror has expressed clear racial bias in their decision-making, juror secrecy can be set aside by the trial court to consider the statement. (Photo: Tim Evanson/cc/flickr)

SCOTUS Ruling Delivers Blow to Racial Bias in the Courtroom

'The nation must continue to make strides to overcome race-based discrimination,' Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority opinion

Civil rights advocates are celebrating what they describe as a "victory against racial animus in the courtroom" on Monday after the Supreme Court issued its "startling" ruling that juror secrecy no longer applies in cases of implied bias.

"The nation must continue to make strides to overcome race-based discrimination," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority opinion (pdf) on behalf of Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan. "The progress that has already been made underlies the court's insistence that blatant racial prejudice is antithetical to the functioning of the jury system and must be confronted in egregious cases."

The case, Pena Rodriguez v. Colorado, raised the question of whether jury secrecy should prevail in instances where a juror has expressed racial bias in their decision making, which attorneys argued is in violation of the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of an impartial jury.

As the New York Times summarized, the case

arose from statements made during jury deliberations in a 2010 sexual assault trial. "I think he did it because he's Mexican, and Mexican men take whatever they want," a juror said of the defendant, according to sworn statements from other jurors submitted by defense lawyers after the trial was over.

The jury deadlocked on the most serious charge, a felony, but it convicted Mr. Pena Rodriguez of three misdemeanors. He was sentenced to two years' probation.

And Bloombergfurther explained:

The federal government and most states prohibit verdicts from being challenged on the basis of juror testimony about comments made during deliberations. The prohibitions are colloquially known as "no impeachment" rules.

Colorado argued that creating a new exception to no-impeachment rule would inhibit full and frank discussion in the jury room. The state also said other safeguards--such as the right to question jurors about possible bias before they are seated--assure the jury system's integrity.

Pena Rodriguez contended that courts have long admitted juror testimony about jury-room misconduct, including racially biased comments, without any appreciable negative effects.

In the dissent, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., who was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Clarence Thomas, called the decision "startling." But advocates, such as Eric Lesh, director of Lambda Legal's Fair Courts project, said that "fair courts depend on a jury system that functions free of bias."

Indeed, in the opinion, Kennedy went on to say that the 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."

Brianne Gorod, chief counsel with the Constitutional Accountability Center, hailed the ruling, saying that "[t]he Court properly recognized today that jury verdicts must not be based on racial discrimination, and therefore gave district courts the latitude they need to look into jury deliberations when there are indications of racial bias that cast serious doubt on the fairness of the jury's deliberations and verdict."

Similarly, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law declared the ruling a "victory in the fight for racial justice!" and issued the below statement from its executive director and president Kristen Clarke:

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