Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado

If you have not made the reading of U.S. Supreme Court rulings a habit, you've been missing out.
The Court usually is not under any obligation to hear [a case], and it usually only does so if the case could have national significance, might harmonize conflicting decisions in the federal Circuit courts, and/or could have precedential value. In fact, the Court accepts 100-150 of the more than 7,000 cases that it is asked to review each year.
Few write American English as lucidly as the Court's justices and their clerks. If you can read The Wall Street Journal or New York Times, then you can read this Court.

The Court's decision, March 6, 2017, in Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado is drawing attention across the Alt Right. As the Court explains:
A Colorado jury convicted petitioner Peña-Rodriguez of harassment and unlawful sexual contact. Following the discharge of the jury, two jurors told defense counsel that, during deliberations, Juror H. C. had expressed anti-Hispanic bias toward petitioner and petitioner’s alibi witness. Counsel, with the trial court’s supervision, obtained affidavits from the two jurors describing a number of biased statements by H. C. The court acknowledged H. C.’s apparent bias but denied petitioner’s motion for a new trial on the ground that Colorado Rule of Evidence 606(b) generally prohibits a juror from testifying as to statements made during deliberations in a proceeding inquiring into the validity of the verdict. The Colorado Court of Appeals affirmed, agreeing that H. C.’s alleged statements did not fall within an exception to Rule 606(b). The Colorado Supreme Court also affirmed, relying on Tanner v. United States, 483 U. S. 107, and Warger v. Shauers, 574 U. S. ___, both of which rejected constitutional challenges to the federal no-impeachment rule as applied to evidence of juror misconduct or bias.
"Anti-Hispanic bias"? Uh-oh. Such words a usually a bad sign.

Fundamental issues of the Constitution and common law are at stake, though. One should not jump to conclusions. Justices Thomas and Alito, along with the chief justice, dissent, which does suggest (if you merely tally our judges versus their judges) that the ruling is probably a bad ruling. Still, let's examine it.

Specifically targeted by the ruling is something called the no-impeachment rule. Federal courts follow this rule. Colorado courts, as it happens, follow an even stricter version of the rule, which belongs to the great body of common law we Americans have inherited from eighteenth-century English jurisprudence.

What is the no-impeachment rule? It is a rule of American court procedure that "categorically bars testimony about jury deliberations, except where it is offered to demonstrate that the jury was subjected to an extraneous influence (for example, an attempt to bribe a juror)." A juror's partiality toward or against a party to a case, if proved, can indeed be grounds "for setting aside a jury verdict." However, jurors may not "supply evidence of that misconduct. In 1770, Lord Mansfield refused to receive a juror’s affidavit to impeach a verdict, declaring that such an affidavit 'can’t be read.'"

Justice Alito explains the no-impeachment rule's rationale:
Our legal system has many rules that restrict the admission of evidence of statements made under circumstances in which confidentiality is thought to be essential. Statements made to an attorney in obtaining legal advice, statements to a treating physician, and statements made to a spouse or member of the clergy are familiar examples. See Trammel v. United States, 445 U. S. 40, 51 (1980). Even if a criminal defendant whose constitutional rights are at stake has a critical need to obtain and introduce evidence of such statements, long-established rules stand in the way. The goal of avoiding interference with confidential communications of great value has long been thought to justify the loss of important evidence and the effect on our justice system that this loss entails.
The present case concerns a rule like those just mentioned, namely, the age-old rule against attempting to overturn or “impeach” a jury’s verdict by offering statements made by jurors during the course of deliberations. For centuries, it has been the judgment of experienced judges, trial attorneys, scholars, and lawmakers that allowing jurors to testify after a trial about what took place in the jury room would undermine the system of trial by jury that is integral to our legal system.
Juries occupy a unique place in our justice system. The other participants in a trial—the presiding judge, the attorneys, the witnesses—function in an arena governed by strict rules of law. Their every word is recorded and may be closely scrutinized for missteps.
When jurors retire to deliberate, however, they enter a space that is not regulated in the same way. Jurors are ordinary people. They are expected to speak, debate, argue, and make decisions the way ordinary people do in their daily lives. Our Constitution places great value on this way of thinking, speaking, and deciding. The jury trial right protects parties in court cases from being judged by a special class of trained professionals who do not speak the language of ordinary people and may not understand or appreciate the way ordinary people live their lives. To protect that right, the door to the jury room has been locked, and the confidentiality of jury deliberations has been closely guarded.
To grasp the true impact of the Court's decision probably wants first a review of the fascinating history of the venerable institution of the English jury, but this blog post is already long enough, so we'll leave that review for another day. I do realize, as you probably do, that the Court's liberal majority is probably more motivated by Steve Sailer's "Who? Whom?" than by a tender concern for the majesty of the law. I suspect too that the Court is wrong, or at any rate that it has here rendered an unwise ruling. Moreover, one doubts[*] the fidelity with which the English jury can serve its ancient purpose when the jurors are, increasingly, multicultural non-Englishmen. Notwithstanding, if you value the English jury (as indeed you should, as Peter Hitchens explains here and here), then Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado merits more careful study.

[*] It does not say, "denies." It says, "doubts." Before you send me hate mail, please read carefully what I have actually written. Then, when you send me hate mail, if you must, please tell me what you think of the jury trials of today's South Africa. Or, if that's too distant a subject, then, instead, if you are old enough to remember O.J. Simpson's murder jury, please tell me what you think of that. Persons who frantically refuse ever to doubt the unchallengeable certainty of politically correct dogma, persons who would try to bar those who do doubt from the arena of civilized discourse, are just tiresome. See Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities.

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