"A constitutional rule that racial bias in the justice system must be addressed," the Court held today in Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, "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."
Last year, the Colorado Supreme Court upheld the conviction of Miguel Angel Peña Rodriguez despite evidence that a juror said, "I think he did it because he's Mexican, and Mexican men take whatever they want." Mr. Rodriguez was accused of making sexual advances toward two teenage girls in the bathroom of a horse-racing track.
The juror, H.C., was a former law enforcement officer who also said during deliberations that "where he used to patrol, nine times out of 10 Mexican men were guilty of being aggressive toward women and young girls." Two other jurors submitted sworn statements after the trial that described H.C.'s comments, which also included that "he did not think the alibi witness was credible because, among other things, he was 'an illegal.'"
The jury convicted Mr. Rodriguez of three misdemeanors, and he was sentenced to two years' probation. He appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court, arguing that his constitutional right to an impartial jury was violated by the juror's expression of racial bias. The court denied relief by a 4-to-3 vote, deciding that the so-called "no-impeachment rule" that prevents courts from second-guessing jury verdicts required the court to disregard evidence of the juror's racial bias.
The United States Supreme Court reversed that decision, holding that racial bias is "a familiar and recurring evil" so harmful to the administration of justice that it cannot be ignored. "[B]latant racial prejudice is antithetical to the functioning of the jury system and must be confronted," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the Court. Accordingly, "where a juror makes a clear statement that indicates 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."
"[R]acial bias implicates unique historical, constitutional, and institutional concerns," the Court reasoned. "It is the mark of a maturing legal system that it seeks to understand and to implement the lessons of history." Given our nation's history of racial injustice, it remains critical to address racial bias in order "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."