The Sixth Amendment guarantees a trial by an impartial jury, and the legal system affords numerous protections against juror bias and misconduct. And in a decision issued on March 6, 2017, a majority of the United States Supreme Court reaffirmed the Sixth Amendment guarantee to trial by impartial jury. In Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, an opinion written by Mr. Justice Kennedy, the Supreme Court held overt racial bias is intolerable while “full and vigorous discussions by jurors” are necessary in deliberations. The majority held that racial bias is such a “familiar and reoccurring evil that, if left unaddressed, would risk systemic injury to the administration of justice.” The decision finds such overt bias as a reason to overturn jury verdicts.
In Pena-Rodriguez, the defendant asked for a new trial after two (2) jurors told his lawyers that a third juror had made racially biased remarks about Miguel Pena-Rodriguez and his main witness, both of whom are Hispanic. The State Trial Court rejected Pena-Rodriguez’s request citing a state evidentiary rule that generally bars jurors from testifying about statements made during deliberations — known as the “no impeachment rule”.
When a juror makes a clear statement indicating that he or she relied on racial stereotypes or racial animus decide a case, the Sixth Amendment requires that the “no impeachment rule” give way in order to prevent the Trial Court to consider the evidence of the juror’s statement and any resulting denial of the jury trial guarantee.
The majority of the Court joined in this 5-3 decision. Those justices in favor included Justice Ginsbrug, Justice Breyer, Justice Sotomayor, Justice Kagan, and Mr. Justice Kennedy who delivered the opinion of the Court. Justices Thomas, Alito, and Chief Justice Roberts dissented.
The Supreme Court noted a showing must be made 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 result in verdict. To qualify, the statement must tend to show that racial animus was a significant motivating factor in the juror’s vote. . .”.
Finally, the Supreme Court emphasized that parties who allege a juror was racially biased must meet a high bar: “Not every offhand comments indicating racial bias or hostility will justify setting aside the no-impeachment bar to allow further judicial inquiry.”