Supreme Court to Rule on “No-impeachment” Rules and Racially Biased Juror Statements

In the words of the Colorado Supreme Court, two fundamental tenets of our judicial system are at odds with each other in Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado:  protecting the secrecy of jury deliberations and ensuring a defendant’s constitutional right to an impartial jury.

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.

A jury convicted Miguel Angel Pena-Rodriguez of three misdemeanors related to making sexual advances toward two teenage girls in the bathroom of the horse-racing facility where he worked. Subsequent to conviction, two jurors alleged that another juror made numerous racially biased statements during jury deliberations. 

Pena-Rodriguez argues that if Colorado’s “no-impeachment” rule bars admission of the juror’s racially biased statements it violates his Sixth Amendment right to be tried by an “impartial” jury. The Colorado Supreme Court disagreed.

In two previous cases the Supreme Court ruled that the federal “no-impeachment” rule wasn’t unconstitutional where it barred admission of evidence that the jury was “one big party” where numerous jurors used drugs and alcohol (Tanner v. United States, 1987) and that a juror in a car-crash case said in deliberations that her daughter caused a car accident and had she been sued it would have ruined her life (Warger v. Shauers, 2014).

According to the Colorado Supreme Court these two cases stand for a “simple but crucial principle: Protecting the secrecy of the jury deliberations is of paramount importance in our justice system.”

The Colorado Supreme Court acknowledged that neither Tanner nor Warger involved racial bias. “But in examining the Court’s jurisprudence, we cannot discern a dividing line between different types of juror bias or misconduct, whereby one form of partiality would implicate a party’s Sixth Amendment right while another would not.”  

The dissent noted that just last term in Warger the Court stated that there may be some cases of juror bias that are so extreme that “almost by definition the jury trial right has been abridged.” According to the dissent, this is that “exceptional case.”

If the Supreme Court rules that “no-impeachment” rules barring the admission of evidence of juror’s racially biased statements violate the Sixth Amendment, state legislatures may have to modify their “no-impeachment” rules to create an exception admitting such evidence.