SCOTUS denies jury secrecy when racism expressed, altering 6th Amendment interpretation
On Monday, a divided Supreme Court ruled 5-3 in the case of Miguel Angel Peña-Rodriguez, who was convicted of three misdemeanors for harassing and trying to grope two teenage sisters in a dark racetrack bathroom. Peña-Rodriguez was sentenced to two years’ probation, but still maintains that he is innocent.
After the verdict, two other jurors submitted sworn statements, saying that one juror, who is referred to as “HC” in court documents, made a number of biased statements about Peña-Rodriguez behind the closed doors of the jury room.
According to the affidavits by the two jurors, HC said that Peña-Rodriguez was guilty “because he’s Mexican, and Mexican men take whatever they want.” The jurors also described how HC knew Peña-Rodriguez was guilty, because, according to him, “nine times out of 10 Mexican men were guilty of being aggressive toward women and young girls.”
HC also called into question the testimony of Peña-Rodriguez’s main witness, because he was “an illegal.”
Peña-Rodriguez says that HC’s bias views deprived him of a fair trial, but under Colorado law, those statements fall under the state’s “no impeachment” rule, which bars jurors from testifying about statements made during deliberations. Similar rules are found in one form or another in every state, as well as the District of Columbia.
Justice Anthony Kennedy was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan in the decision to send Peña-Rodriguez’s case back to the lower courts, so they could consider the two jurors’ testimony in the case against Peña-Rodriguez.
Justice Kennedy wrote the opinion of the majority, acknowledging the importance of the “no impeachment rule,” which he said allows jurors to engage in “full and vigorous discussion,” without being “harassed or annoyed by litigants seeking to challenge the verdict,” and to give “stability and finality to verdicts.”
Kennedy, however, ruled that in certain cases, “blatant racial prejudice is antithetical to the functioning of the jury system and must be confronted in egregious cases like this one, despite the general bar of the no-impeachment rule."
Kennedy says the ruling is limited to instances of racial bias, but even with those limitations, the Sixth Amendment will now extend to post-trial evidence of racial bias from the jury.
In dissent, Justice Samuel Alito was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas, saying that while the decision was well-intentioned, it “not only pries open the door; it rules that respecting the privacy of the jury room, as our legal system has done for centuries, violates the Constitution.”
“This is a startling development,” Alito wrote, “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.”