For well over two centuries in American and English law, once a jury in a criminal case reached its verdict, it could not be questioned about its deliberations. The Supreme Court partly relaxed that quite rigid ruled on Monday, declaring that the Constitution requires a system in which jurors can be asked about claims that racial bias had played a role in reaching a guilty verdict.
The Court’s 5-3 ruling in the case of Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado created for the first time a broad exception to the view that jurors are to be immune to challenges to the way they deliberated toward a verdict. While the Court insisted it was making that exception solely to permit testing for one form of juror hias — racial — it was nonetheless a bold gesture that stirred two vehement dissenting opinions, speaking for three Justices.
The result came about because Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who often expresses conservative views on criminal law and race relations issues, joined with the Court’s four more liberal Justices in reaching the result. Kennedy wrote the opinion for that bloc of five.
Although the result was a major constitutional breakthrough in the criminal law field, the actual decision left much for judges in the trial courts — state and federal — to work out on just how the ruling would be put into practice, case by case. Those judges will be the first to develop standards to guide when to allow post-verdict questioning about biased comments in the jury room, and how to decide whether such bias occurred and, if it did, when it justifies overturning the jury’s verdict and whether there must be a new trial.
A coincidental fact about the new decision was that it involved biased statements by one juror about how “Mexicans” act toward women and about not being able to trust the testimony of a defense witness who was perceived, wrongly, to be an illegal alien. Most often in this country, racial bias in the criminal justice system has targeted racial, not ethnic, minorities. But with a rising Hispanic population, and a spread of anti-immigrant fever in the country, the ruling provided a new measure of protection in at least one major American institution — trial by jury.
The new level of protection against racial or ethnic bias added to established rules that allowed pre-trial questioning of potential jurors about their attitudes about race, and the ability of lawyers to strike from a panel a juror perceived as biased, plus the authority of judges to give formal instructions to the jurors who serve not to allow bias to enter the deliberations..
Those other techniques had been used in the Colorado sexual abuse trial of a racetrack worker, Miguel Angel Pena-Rodriguez, but those methods turned up no hint of what would later develop when the jury began deliberating over a verdict, and one juror made a series of biased remarks about “Mexicans” and “illegals.”
In that case, two other members of the jury spoke up afterward about the one juror’s comments, but the jury as a whole could not be questioned as a way to challenge the verdict because Colorado courts follow the traditional rule of immunizing jurors from being questioned after the verdict has been reached.
The rule against challenging jury verdicts once a criminal trial has ended was traced by the Court majority back to an English trial in 1785, and to the views of Lord Mansfield, one of the most famous jurists in English history.
In Monday’s decision, Justice Kennedy was joined in the majority by Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginshurg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. The ruling was based on the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of a fair trial, as applied to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment.
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a dissenting opinion expressing views for himself. Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., wrote separately, in a dissenting opinion joined by Thomas and by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr.
In a separate ruling written by Justice Thomas, the Court declared that the federal Sentencing Guidelines that aid judges in selecting specific criminal sentences cannot bechallenged with a claim that the guidance is unconstitutionally vague. While six other Justices agreed with the result, some did so for varying reasons. Justice Kagan did not participate in this case, Beckles v. United States.