Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado

PETITIONER: Miguel Angel Pena-Rodriguez
RESPONDENT: Colorado
LOCATION: Arapahoe County District Court

DOCKET NO.: 15-606
DECIDED BY:
LOWER COURT: Colorado Supreme Court

CITATION: US ()
GRANTED: Apr 04, 2016
ARGUED: Oct 11, 2016

ADVOCATES:
Jeffrey L. Fisher - for petitioner
Rachel P. Kovner - for United States, as amicus curiae
Frederick R. Yarger - for respondent

Facts of the case

Miguel Angel Pena-Rodriguez was convicted of unlawful sexual conduct and harassment in state trial court. After the entry of a guilty verdict, two jurors informed Pena-Rodriguez’s counsel that one of the other jurors made racially biased statements about Pena-Rodriguez and the alibi witness during jury deliberations. The trial court authorized Pena-Rodriguez’s counsel to contact the two jurors for their affidavits explaining what the “biased” juror said about Pena-Rodriguez or his alibi witness. Based on these affidavits, which related racially biased statements about Pena-Rodriguez’s likely guilt and the alibi witness’ lack of credibility because both were Hispanic, Pena-Rodriguez moved for a new trial. The trial court denied the motion, and the Colorado Court of Appeals affirmed. The Supreme Court of Colorado held the jurors’ affidavits were inadmissible under Rule 606(b) of Colorado’s Rules of Evidence, which prohibits juror testimony on any matter occurring during the jury deliberations. The Supreme Court of Colorado also held Rule 606(b) did not violate Pena-Rodriguez’s Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury because Pena-Rodriguez had waived that right by failing to adequately question jurors about their racial bias during voir dire.

Question

May Rule 606(b) of Colorado's Rules of Evidence bar evidence of racial bias offered to prove a violation of the Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury?

Media for Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 11, 2016 in Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

We'll hear argument next in Case 15-606, Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado. Mr. Fisher.

Jeffrey L. Fisher:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court: Roughly half the trials in this country from New York to California to South Carolina are already conducted under the rule we seek today: Mainly, a requirement that judges consider evidence of racial bias when it's offered to prove a violation of the Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury. This Court should require Colorado to follow the same rule.

Indeed, Colorado already has a turnkey system for implementing an exception to racial bias. Like every other jurisdiction across the land, Colorado already has multiple exceptions to the principle of jury secrecy.

So all Colorado has to do is use that same system already in place to administer an exception for racial bias.

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

What about religious bias? Same thing in this case, except it's not, you know, this is how Mexicans act.

It's this is how Catholics or Jews act, so they're obviously guilty. Wouldn't that also come under your exception?

Jeffrey L. Fisher:

Well, there's obviously, Mr. Chief Justice, frequently an overlap between race and religion.

And so for that reason, religion might be viewed very similarly --

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

All right.

Well, that seems to be avoiding the question.

Let's say there isn't Catholics.

Jeffrey L. Fisher:

All the Court needs to decide in this case today is race.

That --

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

No, I don't think that's fair.

Once we decide race -- this is not an equal protection case; it's a Sixth Amendment case.

So a recent invocation of race is an impermissible -- impermissible enough, I guess, that we will pierce the jury confidentiality.

Well, the next case is going to be religion.

So whatever we say on race is going to have to have either a limiting principle that makes sense, or it's going to open up a broad category of cases.

Jeffrey L. Fisher:

I don't deny that there may be subsequent cases if you decide this one in my favor. But I'm saying two things to the Court. First of all, you can and should do what the Court's done in previous situations like this, which is start with race.

And the reason why is because the Court has said time and again, in cases like Rose v. Mitchell, in cases like Ham v. South Carolina, that race is different, race is unique.

It is a unique --

Samuel A. Alito, Jr.:

Suppose we start with race. You're not being very helpful to the Court in your answers. Suppose we start with race, and the next case involves religion.

Now, how would you distinguish religion from race if we were to reach an opposite conclusion in the religious case?

Jeffrey L. Fisher:

What you would do in that case, Justice Alito, is conduct the same analysis you're being asked to conduct here, which is look at the Tanner factors and ask how effective other safeguards are at rooting out --

Sonia Sotomayor:

Mr. Fisher, why?

Jeffrey L. Fisher:

Pardon me?

Sonia Sotomayor:

Why?

Jeffrey L. Fisher:

Why would you ask that --

Sonia Sotomayor:

Why? I mean, you know, the Chief says this is not an equal protection case, but the Sixth Amendment applies to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment; correct?

Jeffrey L. Fisher:

Yes.