Tuesday, April 6, 2021
Sixth Circuit Finds Jurors in Civil Cases Must be Able to Impeach Their Verdicts Based on Racial Bias During Deliberations
In Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, the Supreme Court held
that where a juror makes a clear statement that indicates he or she relied on racial stereotypes or animus to convict a criminal defendant, the Sixth Amendment requires that the no-impeachment rule give way in order to permit the trial court to consider the evidence of the juror’s statement and any resulting denial of the jury trial guarantee.
The Sixth Amendment only applies to criminal prosecutions, but the Sixth Circuit has now held that Pena-Rodriguez applies in criminal cases as well.
John Harden, an African American man, asserted a number of claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Officer Keith Hillman, the City of Heritage Creek, and Thorntons, Inc., alleging violations of his constitutional rights, as well as claims under Kentucky law. Harden's claims arose out of his arrest and prosecution following an incident at a Thorntons convenience store in Louisville, Kentucky. Besides Harden's excessive force claim against Hillman, all of his claims were dismissed prior to trial. Following a trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Hillman on the excessive force claim.
After the verdict, an African American juror submitted an affidavit stating
that her “service on the jury was a very painful, humiliating and embarrassing experience, so much so that it has caused me not to ever again want to serve on another jury. I feel this way because of the blatant racial stereotyping, bias, and prejudice shown by my fellow jurors toward Mr. Harden and his legal team.”...She explained that her “fellow jurors, all of whom were white, spoke freely in [her] presence because they thought [she] was Latin[a] because of [her] complexion and the pronunciation of [her] name.”
The district court found the affidavit inadmissible under the anti-jury impeachment rule, Federal Rule of Evidence 606(b). The Sixth Circuit disagreed, finding that the juror could impeach the verdict based upon Pena-Rodriguez, concluding that
Although Pena-Rodriguez’s holding cited the Sixth Amendment, which only applies to criminal prosecutions, the Supreme Court's reasoning and precedent demonstrate that the holding applies equally to civil cases. As an initial matter, the Supreme Court's cases dealing with the no-impeachment rule in the civil context have consistently left open the possibility of exceptional cases where the rule would not apply. In McDonald v. Pless, 238 U.S. 264 (1915), the Supreme Court's seminal case establishing the broad no-impeachment rule, the Court recognized that there might be exceptions “in the gravest and most important cases.”...And as explained above, almost one hundred years later, the Supreme Court explained in Warger that there might be exceptions to the no-impeachment rule in “cases of juror bias so extreme that, almost by definition, the jury trial right has been abridged.”...
Moreover, because the Warger Court held that “[t]he Constitution guarantees both criminal and civil litigants a right to an impartial jury,” we see no principled basis for limiting Pena-Rodriguez’s holding to criminal cases....As explained above, Pena-Rodriguez was based on the principle derived from the Fourteenth Amendment “that discrimination on the basis of race, ‘odious in all aspects, is especially pernicious in the administration of justice.’”...And while Pena-Rodriguez happened to deal with a criminal case, the Supreme Court has made it clear that this principle also applies in civil cases.Five years after the Supreme Court held in Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), that peremptory challenges could not be exercised to exclude potential jurors on the basis of race, the Supreme Court held in Edmonson v. Leesville Concrete Co., 500 U.S. 614 (1991), that Batson was “not limited to the criminal sphere.”...In support of this holding, the Court explained that “[a] civil proceeding often implicates significant rights and interests. Civil juries, no less than their criminal counterparts, must follow the law and act as impartial factfinders. And, as we have observed, their verdicts, no less than those of their criminal counterparts, become binding judgments of the court.” Id. Accordingly, the Supreme Court held that “[r]acial discrimination has no place in the courtroom, whether the proceeding is civil or criminal....The Constitution demands nothing less.”...Therefore, the Supreme Court's precedents establishing a civil litigant's right to an impartial jury and the need to eradicate racial discrimination from the civil courtroom supports holding that Pena-Rodriguez applies to civil cases.Finally, Pena-Rodriguez did not merely decline to apply the no-impeachment rule to evidence of racial bias. Instead, the Supreme Court explained that the entire rationale for the no-impeachment rule does not apply to evidence of racial bias. The Court recognized that, although the no-impeachment rule ordinarily protects the jury system, the “unique historical, constitutional, and institutional concerns” surrounding racial bias means that applying the no-impeachment rule to such evidence “would risk systemic injury to the administration of justice.”...The Supreme Court also explained that the normal safeguards protecting the right to an impartial jury are not as effective when it comes to racial bias because the “stigma that attends racial bias may make it difficult for a juror to report inappropriate statements during the course of juror deliberations.”...Therefore, because Pena-Rodriguez held that the no-impeachment rule has no place when it comes to evidence of racial bias, and considering the Supreme Court's precedent establishing the need to eliminate racial discrimination from the civil courtroom, we hold that the no-impeachment rule must give way to evidence of racial bias in civil cases.Although the Sixth Amendment is unavailable, as it was in Pena-Rodriguez, to fulfill the Constitution's demand that racial discrimination be eliminated from the civil courtroom, the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of “equal protection of the laws” provides a sufficient basis to extend Pena-Rodriguez to civil cases. “[T]he central purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment was to eliminate racial discrimination emanating from official sources in the States,”...and the purpose of the Equal Protection Clause is “to secure every person within the state's jurisdiction against intentional and arbitrary discrimination, whether occasioned by express terms of a statute or by its improper execution through duly constituted agents.”...Thus, as detailed in Pena-Rodriguez, the Supreme Court has repeatedly invoked the Fourteenth Amendment in its efforts to root out discrimination from the jury system....
Holding that the no-impeachment rule must give way to a civil litigant's equal protection rights when jurors rely on racial stereotypes or bias in the deliberation room does not end the discussion of Harden's claim. In Pena-Rodriguez, the Supreme Court explained that “[n]ot every offhand comment indicating racial bias or hostility will justify setting aside the no-impeachment bar to allow further judicial inquiry.”... Instead, “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,” and, “[t]o qualify, the statement must tend to show that racial animus was a significant motivating factor in the juror's vote to convict.” Id. The Court also explained that “[w]hether that threshold showing has been satisfied is a matter committed to the substantial discretion of the trial court in light of all the circumstances, including the content and timing of the alleged statements and the reliability of the proffered evidence.”
I'm very happy with this result and the reasoning. A couple years ago, Charles Rhines was scheduled to be executed, but there was evidence of anti-gay bias by the jury. The lower courts, however, held that Pena-Rodriguez only applied to juror racial bias. I wrote the law professor amici curiae brief, arguing that, as with Batson, which was initially only an opinion about racist jury strikes during criminal cases, courts should and likely will apply Pena-Rodriguez to civil cases and cases involving other types of bias. There's still a long way to go, but this is a great first step.