The Supreme Court ruled today that courts must reject the usual rule that jury deliberations are secret when evidence emerges they were marred by racial or ethnic bias. The 5-to-3 decision was triggered by statements made during jury deliberations in a 2010 sexual assault trial, when a juror said of the defendant, “I think he did it because he’s Mexican, and Mexican men take whatever they want.” The juror was a former law enforcement officer, and after the trial was over, two other jurors submitted sworn statements describing what he had said during deliberations.
Those statements, the Court’s majority said, warranted an investigation by the trial judge into deliberations that are ordinarily secret. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined Justice Kennedy in the majority opinion.
In dissent, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Clarence Thomas, wrote that the majority opinion was a well intentioned but ill-considered intrusion into jurors’ privacy. “This is a startling development,” Justice Alito wrote, “and although the court tries to limit the degree of intrusion, it is doubtful that there are principled grounds for preventing the expansion of today’s holding.”
“Not every offhand comment indicating racial bias or hostility will justify” an investigation into jurors’ deliberations, Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority. “For the inquiry to proceed, there must be a showing 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 resulting verdict.”
Before today, the Supreme Court has said that even egregious misconduct in the jury room cannot be used to challenge a conviction if it would require jurors to testify about occurred during deliberations.
Your Ethics Alarms Supreme Court Ethics Quiz of the Day is…
Did the SCOTUS majority choose the right side in this ethics conflict?
I’m not so sure it did, but I want to see what you think first.