Supreme Court Holds Jurors May Have to Testify About their Racial Bias after the Verdict

If state legislatures don’t create an exception to their “no-impeachment” rules for jurors who make racially biased statements courts will read such an exception into their rules of evidence following the Supreme Court’s 5-3 decision in Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado. At least 16 states already have adopted such an exception.  

Most states, including Colorado, and the federal government have a “no-impeachment” rule which prevents jurors from testifying after a verdict about what happened during deliberations with limited exceptions that do not include that a juror expressed racial bias. The rationale behind no-impeachment rules is to decrease the chances of juror being harassed post-verdict and to encourage jurors to “engage in searching and candid deliberations.”

A jury found Miguel Angel Pena-Rodriguez guilty of unlawful sexual contact and harassment involving two teenage sisters. The incident occurred in the bathroom of the horse-racing facility where he worked. Subsequent to conviction, two jurors alleged that another juror made numerous statements during deliberations indicating he believed Pena-Rodriguez was guilty because he is Mexican.   

In McDonald v. Pless (1915), well before Congress adopted the Federal Rules of Evidence in 1975, the Supreme Court stated that an exception to the no-impeachment rule is only appropriate in the “gravest and most important cases.” Since 1975 the Supreme Court has refused to recognize exceptions to the no-impeachment rule in two cases noting, among other things, that other “significant safeguards,” like voir dire, help ensure defendants are tried by an impartial jury.

Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, concluded that the “Constitution requires an exception to the no-impeachment rule when a juror’s statements indicate that racial animus was a significant motivating factor in his or her finding of guilt.” According to the Court eliminating the behavior presented in the two post-1975 cases (drug and alcohol abuse by jurors and pro-defendant bias) would have served to “perfect” the jury system. “To attempt to rid the jury of every irregularity of this sort would be to expose it to unrelenting scrutiny.”

Racial bias is different given our Nation’s history. “An effort to address the most grave and serious statements of racial bias is not an effort to perfect the jury but to ensure that our legal system remains capable of coming ever closer to the promise of equal treatment under the law that is so central to a functioning democracy.” 

The Court offered some guidance as to when a trial court must consider evidence of racial bias:  offhand comments aren’t enough, “statements exhibiting overt racial bias [must] cast serious doubt on the fairness and impartiality of the jury’s deliberations and resulting verdict,” and the statements “must tend to show that racial animus was a significant motivating factor in the juror’s vote to convict.”