Criminal Justice

Peña Rodriguez v. Colorado

In Peña Rodriguez v. Colorado, the Supreme Court considered whether a state no-impeachment rule can constitutionally bar evidence of racial bias offered to prove a violation of the Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury.

Case Summary

Immediately after Miguel Angel Peña Rodriguez was tried for one felony count of attempted sexual assault, one misdemeanor count of unlawful sexual contact, and two misdemeanor counts of harassment and convicted on the three misdemeanor charges, two jurors revealed to defense counsel that another juror had made a number of racially biased comments during the jury’s deliberations. Peña Rodriguez’s defense counsel requested and received from the jurors affidavits that set out in detail the discriminatory statements that were allegedly made during jury deliberations, and upon receiving the affidavits, the trial court acknowledged that the offending juror “appear[ed] to be biased based on what he said in the jury room.” The trial court nonetheless determined that the juror’s expressions of racial animus could not form the basis for a new trial because Colorado’s no-impeachment rule prohibits inquiry into what occurs in the jury room. Divided panels of both the Colorado Court of Appeals and the Colorado Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s conviction. Peña Rodriguez filed a petition for a writ of certiorari on November 10, 2015, which the U.S. Supreme Court granted on April 4, 2016.

On June 30, 2016, Constitutional Accountability Center filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Peña Rodriguez, arguing that applying state no-impeachment rules in the context of allegations of racial bias undermines our nation’s constitutional commitment to race-blind decision-making in the jury context. When the Framers drafted our enduring charter, they enshrined the right to an impartial jury trial in the Sixth Amendment, viewing it as critical to a system of ordered liberty. The Constitution’s explicit requirement that jurors be “impartial” prohibits jury service by those who have racial biases or prejudices that would affect their ability to dispassionately assess the evidence presented in court.

Indeed, in the aftermath of the Civil War, the Framers of the Reconstruction Amendments (the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments) repeatedly acted to ensure the existence of impartial juries that would fairly apply the law regardless of race. In doing so, they repeatedly made clear that racial bias in jury decision-making was intolerable, running afoul of both the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of an “impartial” jury and the newly adopted Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee to all persons of the “equal protection of the law.” As we also discuss in our brief, the Supreme Court’s cases have long reflected the importance of this race-blind decision-making in the jury context.

The Court heard oral argument on October 11, 2016. On March 6, 2017, the Court held, 5-3, that district courts can look into jury deliberations when there are indications of racial bias that cast serious doubt on the fairness of a jury’s deliberations and verdict. Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy acknowledged that “racial bias in the justice system must be addressed—including, in some instances, after the verdict has been entered” in order to “prevent a systemic loss of confidence in jury verdicts, a confidence that is a central premise of the Sixth Amendment trial right.” Relying on history we provided in our brief, Justice Kennedy also wrote powerfully about the importance of the nation’s Second Founding, explaining how the “imperative to purge racial prejudice from the administration of justice was given new force and direction by the ratification of the Civil War Amendments.”

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