At a time when common sense is all but common, the U.S. Supreme Court is demonstrating its highest use by effectively breaking up the ultimate back room injustice. In a 5 to 3 decision the majority ruled verdicts can be thrown out when evidence emerges that jury discussions were marred by racial or ethnic bias.
This decision effectively redefines a rule that jury deliberations are to be secret at all costs. It’s a kind of judicial take on the old slogan “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” Well, that statement has never been true and what jurors say and do while deciding a verdict shouldn’t stay there either.
This decision is startlingly unique. For the first time, the nation’s highest court is specifically targeting racial and ethnic bias in jury deliberations. By so doing, it leaves intact other jury privacy protections.
Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy defines the ruling’s perimeters, “not every offhand comment indicating racial bias or hostility will justify” an investigation into jurors’ deliberations. 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.”
This landmark decision comes out of “Pena Rodriguez vs Colorado (15-606). It’s about deliberations in his 2010 sexual assault trial. According to sworn statements from other jurors, a former law enforcement officer identified only as H.C. said, “I think he did it because he’s Mexican, and Mexican men take whatever they want.”
When the trial ended two other jurors submitted corroborating sworn statements. One recalled, “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,.”
Justice Kennedy argued statements like that “warranted an investigation by the trial judge into deliberations that are ordinarily secret.” Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan agreed.
Justice Samuel Alito Jr. was joined in dissent by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justice Clarence Thomas. Alito argued “the majority opinion was a well intentioned but ill-considered intrusion into jurors’ privacy.”
Privacy at what cost? Certainly we don’t want jurors to face reprisals or to be punished for their decisions. But we also don’t need them using the jury system to advance any personal agendas or to join the fight to “take back America.”
Disciples of these Trump Era mantras are growing more and more aggressive in their tactics. There are people out there who actually believe they have the right to take their country back by eliminating, taking out or putting away as many minorities and immigrants as possible, “by any means necessary.”
What I admire about the ruling is its undeniable clarity. Justice Kennedy leaves no doubt the justice system needs to root out racial bias. He writes “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.”
Unfortunately, Justice Alito writes off the majority opinion as “admirable but misguided.” Then goes on to explain “it seeks to remedy a flaw in the jury system, but as this court said some years ago, it is questionable whether our system of trial by jury can endure this attempt to perfect it.”
What a fascinating contradiction in thought. Alito actually agrees with the majority while opposing it only to infer the jury system should somehow be excused because it can’t handle a mandate to end racial bias.
What an artful demonstration of judicial gobbledygook, of the absence of common sense at the highest judicial level. I don’t know about you. But I can’t tell you how happy I am the majority (in this case) still maintains “it’s good sense and sound judgement in practical matters.”
Dennis Edwards is the Interim-Pastor of Richmond’s Historic 4th Baptist Church. He is an Emmy Award Winning Investigative Television Journalist, a graduate of Virginia Union University and its Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology.