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Court to rule on challenge to juror bias

The Supreme Court on Monday took on a long-standing dispute over the privacy of jury deliberations, agreeing to decide whether jurors can be questioned after a trial is over about one of their colleagues’ support for a guilty verdict because of the defendant’s racial or ethnic identity.  The case of Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado will be argued and decided in the Court’s next Term, starting in October.

Most states, along with the federal courts, have rules that bar the questioning of jurors about claims that one of the members of their panel engaged in misconduct while the jurors were making up their minds.  The idea behind such rules is that jurors should be able to ponder verdicts without worrying about being second-guessed later about the decisions they made, and how those were made.  The specific question the Justices will decide is when the enforcement of that rule would interfere with the Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury.

The case grows out of the prosecution of an Aurora, Colo., racetrack worker, Miguel Angel Pena-Rodriguez, for alleged sexual harassment of two teen-aged girls.  He was found guilty of three misdemeanor charges, sentenced to two years on probation, and required to register as a sex offender.  (A native of Mexico, Pena-Rodriguez entered the United States as a child; his formal immigration status is not clarified in the case.)

After the trial was over, two jurors told defense lawyers that one of the jurors had made a number of racist comments about Mexicans during the jury deliberations.  Among other points, that juror was said to have told colleagues that Pena-Rodriguez had committed the crime because he was a Mexican “and Mexican men take whatever they want,” that Mexican men had “a bravado that caused them to believe they could do whatever they wanted with women,” and that Mexican men were “physically controlling of women.”  That juror, a former police officer, allegedly made similar comments based on his experience with Mexican men.  The same juror allegedly described a witness, who also was Hispanic, as someone who could not be believed because he was “an illegal.”

Before the trial, the judge had told defense lawyers that, sometimes, jurors in the court in Colorado often had voiced their dislike of individuals who had entered the U.S. illegally.  Defense lawyers, however, did not ask any of the potential jurors about that possibility.

In taking the case on to the Supreme Court, lawyers for Pena-Rodriguez argued that federal and state courts are split on when a rule against questioning jurors after a trial must be set aside to allow an inquiry into claims of alleged racial bias during deliberations.

In its orders on Monday, the Court accepted for review only the Pena-Rodriguez case.  In other actions, it turned down several new cases seeking clarification of whether federal courts have the authority to approve a lawsuit in the form of a class action if some of those involved in the case had not suffered any of the harm claimed in the case.  These were attempts to get the Court to spell out further new limits on class-action lawsuits, in the wake of its recent ruling in the case of Tyson Foods v. Bouaphakeo.



Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Court to rule on challenge to juror bias, SCOTUSblog (Apr. 4, 2016, 3:14 PM),