Supreme Court Allows Challenges to Jury Deliberations Based on Evidence of Racial Bias

What should a court do when confronted with evidence of racial bias in jury deliberations? At common law, once a case was over a verdict could not be challenged based on evidence of what happened during jury deliberations. This historical rule against the impeachment of jury verdicts is codified in Rule 606(b) of the Federal Rules of Evidence. The rule serves to encourage free and frank communications within the jury room, to prevent the harassment of jurors once a case is over, and to promote respect for and finality of jury verdicts.

Last week in United States v. Peña-Rodriguez the Supreme Court ruled 5-3 that the Constitution requires an exception to this rule when there is evidence of racial bias in jury deliberations. (I first wrote about the case when it was argued last fall, you can find that post here.) Faced with the evidence of such bias, the Court was understandably reluctant to leave the defendant without a remedy. But the implications for the jury system go far beyond this single case.

The Issue in Peña-Rodriguez

A Colorado jury convicted Mr. Peña-Rodriguez of unlawful sexual contact with two young women. After the case was over, two jurors reported to his defense attorney that another juror had demonstrated bias against Hispanics during deliberations. That juror reportedly made several statements demonstrating his prejudices, including that the defendant was likely guilty because Mexican men have a macho attitude and believe they can take whatever they want when it comes to women.

The Colorado courts ruled Peña-Rodriguez could not challenge his conviction based on this evidence. Colorado has a rule similar to Federal Rule 606(b), which prohibits the impeachment of jury verdicts based on evidence of what happened during deliberations. The great majority of states follow this same rule.

Nine states, however, follow a more relaxed standard known as the Iowa rule. These states prohibit inquiry into a juror’s own subjective beliefs following a verdict but do allow scrutiny of things that take place during deliberations, including statements reflecting bias by other jurors.

Scene from 12 Angry Men - Racial Bias in Jury Deliberations

Confronting Racial Bias in Jury Deliberations

Peña-Rodriguez argued in the Supreme Court that his Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial required that he be allowed to challenge his conviction. In an opinion by Justice Kennedy, the Supreme Court agreed. The Court ruled there must be an exception to the no-impeachment rule when there are allegations of racial bias in jury deliberations.

The Court held, in effect, that race is different. Our country has a long and troubled history involving racial discrimination, including within the justice system itself. In light of that history, it is essential that there be mechanisms to ensure racial bias does not infect jury verdicts. When there is evidence of such bias, there must be a remedy: “When jurors disclose an instance of racial bias as serious as the one involved in this case, the law must not wholly disregard its occurrence.”

It’s true there are other safeguards against biased jurors, including the voir dire process of jury selection. But the Court argued these might not be as effective when it comes to rooting out potential racial animus. Attorneys might be reluctant to press potential jurors about bias out of fear of alienating or offending them. Fellow jurors might be hesitant to report biased conduct that takes place prior to deliberations because it is difficult to accuse a fellow juror of being a bigot.

The Court noted that not every offhand comment or stray remark will justify a hearing challenging the verdict: “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.” The Court said the statements “must tend to show that racial animus was a significant motivating factor in the juror’s vote to convict.” Determining whether that threshold is met will be up to the discretion of the trial judge, who may evaluate the evidence in light of the entire case.

Notably, the Court did not spell out exactly what procedures a trial court should follow when presented with such evidence. Nor did it specify what exactly a defendant must show in order to set aside a verdict and obtain a new trial. The question before the Court was simply whether a defendant has the right to raise such a challenge at all. The details of how that is done will be worked out in the lower courts.

The Court concluded:

The Nation must continue to make strides to overcome race-based discrimination. The progress that has already been made underlies the Court’s insistence that blatant racial prejudice is antithetical to the functioning of the jury system and must be confronted in egregious cases like this one despite the general bar of the no-impeachment rule. It is the mark of a maturing legal system that it seeks to understand and to implement the lessons of history. The Court now seeks to strengthen the broader principle that society can and must move forward by achieving the thoughtful, rational dialogue at the foundation of both the jury system and the free society that sustains our Constitution.

The Dissenting Opinions

Justice Thomas dissented. He claimed the historical understanding of the right to a jury trial, as embodied in the Sixth Amendment, did not include the right to impeach a jury’s verdict for any reason. As a result, he argued, even if there were sound policy reasons that might cause a legislature to allow such an inquiry, there was no basis for the Court to find that the Constitution requires it.

Justice Alito also wrote a dissent, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Thomas. He too claimed the Court’s decision, although well-intentioned, lacked a constitutional foundation. Like Justice Thomas, he argued that historically there was no right to impeach a jury’s verdict and such a right thus could not properly be found in the Sixth Amendment. Congress adopted the traditional no-impeachment policy in Rule 606(b), and the Court had no basis to disturb that policy decision.

Justice Alito argued jury deliberations should be protected because jurors are “ordinary people” who “make decisions the way ordinary people do in their daily lives.” They should not be second-guessed by “trained professionals” who “do not speak the language of ordinary people.” In order to ensure free and frank communications, jury deliberations should be immune from scrutiny even if they occasionally reflect potential improper bias. The law protects other communications, such as those between spouses or attorney and client, even when they include evidence of misconduct. The same should be true, he argued, of jury deliberations.

In addition to agreeing with Justice Thomas’s historical arguments, Justice Alito challenged the majority’s empirical claims that other safeguards in the jury system are inadequate to protect against racial bias. He noted there are many resources discussing how to raise the issue of potential discrimination during voir dire without offending potential jurors. He also said it made little sense to  claim a juror might be somehow reluctant to report biased statements prior to deliberations but more willing to report them after the verdict.

Justice Alito noted that although the majority tried to limit its holding, once the no-impeachment rule was breached it would be difficult to limit the rule only to cases involving racial bias.

jury room door - what should a court do with evidence of racial bias in jury deliberations

Opening the Door to the Jury Room

The central dispute in Peña-Rodriguez was not whether the juror’s comments were reprehensible; all agreed that they were. It wasn’t even over whether it would be a good idea to allow the verdict to be impeached. The dispute was simply over who gets to decide: Congress or the Court. The dissenters argued Congress had already made a policy choice by enacting Rule 606(b) and that there was no basis for the Court to intervene. The majority held the Constitution trumps that decision by Congress when racial bias is involved.

The Court’s decision is understandable; it would be difficult for something that calls itself a justice system to provide no remedy at all when confronted with the evidence in this case. But at the same time, bright-line rules do have some advantages. Now that the door to the jury room has been cracked open, a lot of unanswered questions remain.

Justice Alito is correct when he says there is probably no principled way to prevent the Court’s decision from being expanded in the future. As the majority notes, our country’s history with racial discrimination is unique. But when it comes to an individual defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial, it is hard to justify a rule that allows challenges to only some types of discrimination. What about juror bias based on the fact that the defendant is a Muslim? Or a woman? Or gay?

The Court held that remedying racial bias in deliberations is necessary in order to prevent “a systemic loss of confidence in jury verdicts, a confidence that is a central premise of the Sixth Amendment trial right.” But surely verdicts that were upheld in the face of other types of discrimination would result in a similar loss of confidence and would require a similar remedy. Logic seems to demand that the Court’s rationale be expanded to other forms of bias in future cases.

Unintended Consequences and Practical Difficulties

 The Court’s decision may have additional unintended consequences. The rule against impeachment of verdicts was designed in part to shield jurors from harassment. There may be greater risk now that attorneys will aggressively seek out jurors after a loss to see if there is information to support a challenge. As the Court observed, those contacts will be limited to some degree by state legal and ethical rules governing when parties and their counsel may contact jurors.

There is also a fear that allowing these challenges will simply drive prejudice underground. Perhaps the biased juror will not speak up, where his ideas may be challenged and refuted by the other jurors, but will simply keep his prejudices to himself out of fear of having his statements challenged later. But this assumes a certain baseline of legal knowledge and perhaps is not a realistic concern. It’s hard to know how much the free-flowing discussion among a jury of Justice Alito’s “ordinary people” is influenced by the intricacies of the law on post-verdict challenges.

Practical issues will confront trial courts faced with a challenge to deliberations. The Supreme Court purposely did not spell out exactly how a court should decide whether a defendant deserves a hearing, or when a court should order a new trial. How does a judge determine whether expressions of bias by a single juror had an impermissible impact on the unanimous verdict of twelve? Should evidence of a single racist juror automatically result in a new trial? Is the court to presume the remaining eleven jurors were passive sheep unable to resist? It may be at least as likely that the remaining jurors rejected the improper views and disregarded any further statements by that juror.

The Peña-Rodriguez jury deliberated for twelve hours. Assessing the impact of a handful of biased statements on that entire deliberative process is a daunting challenge for a judge. It may require examining individual jurors one by one. This again implicates the interests about juror harassment and finality of verdicts that justified the rule against impeachment in the first place. Nevertheless, in those (probably rare) cases where this type of evidence emerges, it will now be up to trial courts to undertake that inquiry, with little guidance from the Supreme Court on how to proceed.

Amending Rule 606, and Schools of Constitutional Interpretation

Now that the Court has constitutionalized the right to challenge some deliberations, it would make sense for Congress to amend Federal Rule of Evidence 606(b) to make something like the Iowa rule the federal standard. Challenges to jury verdicts should be allowed if there is evidence of any kind of improper bias or animus during deliberations. It makes little sense to wait for years while lower courts try to sort out whether Peña-Rodriguez requires them to entertain challenges based on other forms of discrimination.

A final side note: in light of the upcoming confirmation hearings for the nomination of  Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, the different schools of constitutional interpretation highlighted in Peña-Rodriguez are particularly interesting. With its concluding flourish about a maturing legal system confronting the country’s history of racial discrimination, the majority embraced a “living Constitution,” where constitutional norms grow and adapt to support a developing society. The dissenters, on the other hand, represent a classic textualist or originalist view. They interpret the Constitution strictly based on its text and how it was understood at the time it was adopted.

Judge Gorsuch falls squarely within the originalist school of interpretation, as did the man whose seat he would fill, Justice Scalia. It seems likely that if he had been on the Court, Gorsuch would have sided with the dissenters and it would have been a 5-4 decision. This is one of those areas where replacing Justice Scalia with Justice Gorsuch probably would not result in a significant shift in the balance of the Court.

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Why Jeff Sessions Is Unlikely To Face Perjury Charges

Did Jeff Sessions commit perjury? Washington is abuzz over whether the new Attorney General may have lied during his confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate. During his sworn testimony and in a written questionnaire, Sessions denied having any communications with Russian officials during the course of President Trump’s campaign.

Then last week the Washington Post reported Sessions had met with the Russian ambassador to the United States in July and September of 2016. At the time, then-Senator Sessions was a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee but was also serving as a top foreign policy advisor to the Trump campaign.

In public statements and at a press conference last Thursday, Sessions claimed his responses were truthful. He said he understood the questions to relate only to contacts with Russians on behalf of the campaign. His meetings with the Russian ambassador, he maintained, were in his role as a Senator, not as a Trump campaign surrogate. As such, he did not consider those meetings relevant. Although he said in hindsight he wished he had mentioned the meetings, he said he had no intent to lie.

Attorney General Sessions has now recused himself from any investigation involving President Trump’s campaign. But this has not put to rest the controversy surrounding his Senate testimony. Some Democrats have called on him to resign, and there have been widespread allegations that the new Attorney General may be guilty of perjury.

The political implications of all of this are still playing out. But criminal implications are a different matter. New information may come to light, but based on the facts we have now it’s extremely unlikely a perjury case against Sessions would be appropriate or successful.

Did Jeff Sessions commit perjury? Testifying before Congress.

The Questions and Answers

The precise questions and answers are extremely important in any perjury case. Here is the question posed by Senator Al Franken during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on January 10, and Senator Sessions’s response (video here):

Franken: CNN just published a story alleging that the intelligence community provided documents to the president-elect last week that included information that quote, “Russian operatives claimed to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump.” These documents also allegedly say quote, “There was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump’s surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government.”

Now, again, I’m telling you this as it’s coming out, so you know. But if it’s true, it’s obviously extremely serious and if there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?

Sessions: Senator Franken, I’m not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn’t have — did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.

As many have observed, Sessions did not answer the question asked. Rather than saying what he would do as Attorney General, he volunteered information about his own contacts with the Russians. After this non-response, Franken did not follow up about Russian contacts but simply said, “Very well,” and moved on.

In a written questionnaire submitted after the hearing, Sessions again denied any contact with Russian officials regarding the 2016 election. In that questionnaire Sen. Patrick Leahy asked: “Several of the President-elect’s nominees or senior advisers have Russian ties. Have you been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after election day?” Sessions responded: “No.”

The Law of Perjury

The relevant perjury statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1621, applies to any witness under oath who “willfully and contrary to such oath states or subscribes any material matter which he does not believe to be true.” Sessions was under oath. He now admits he met with the Russian ambassador. There is little doubt this information would have been material to the Senate’s inquiry. So as with so many white collar cases, the issue boils down to the potential defendant’s state of mind.

Not all false statements under oath are perjury. A perjury charge requires the government to prove the defendant was deliberately lying. If the witness misunderstood or misinterpreted the question, that is not perjury. Nor is it perjury if the witness didn’t remember relevant information. Even if a witness is deliberately evasive, it’s not perjury if the testimony is literally true. To convict, the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt not only that the statement was false but also that the witness believed it was false when he made it.

Bronston v. United States

Any discussion of perjury should begin with the leading Supreme Court case, Bronston v. United States (1973). Mr. Bronston testified in a bankruptcy proceeding involving his motion picture company. During that testimony the following exchange took place:

Q:      Do you have any bank accounts in Swiss banks, Mr. Bronston?

A:      No, sir.

Q:      Have you ever?

A:      The company had an account there for about six months, in Zurich.

At the time of this testimony Bronston had no Swiss bank accounts and his company had previously had an account in Zurich. His answers were therefore literally true. It was also true, however, that Bronston had previously held a personal Swiss bank account. That account was closed at the time of his testimony. His non-responsive answer to the second question effectively concealed that information.

The government later prosecuted Bronston for perjury. It alleged that his answers, although literally true, were misleading and left a false impression and therefore constituted perjury “by negative implication.”

The Supreme Court rejected this theory and held perjury requires testimony that is actually false. The Court noted that true statements do not violate the language of the statute, even if they are non-responsive or potentially misleading. The statute requires that the witness make a statement he does not believe to be true.

Even if a witness is deliberately evasive, the Court noted, that is to be expected in an adversary proceeding. The burden is on the questioner to pin the witness down. Perjury will not be charged “simply because a wily witness succeeds in derailing the questioner – so long as the witness speaks the literal truth.”

President Clinton denies allegations concerning Monica Lewinsky

What Is the Meaning of “Is?”

A more well-known example of allegations of perjury involved former President Bill Clinton. When testifying in the grand jury he was asked about a statement made by his lawyer in a civil deposition. His lawyer had stated that Monica Lewinsky filed an affidavit saying there “is no sex of any kind in any manner, shape or form, with President Clinton.” When asked whether that statement by his lawyer was false, Clinton famously replied, “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.”

As Clinton explained, his lawyer’s statement was present tense – there “is” no sexual relationship. At the time of the statement the relationship between the President and Ms. Lewinsky had ended some time ago. As a result, Clinton testified, the statement that there “is” no sexual relationship was literally true.

The House of Representatives characterized this testimony as perjury in its Articles of Impeachment. But no criminal prosecutor worth his salt would have brought a perjury case. In a trial for perjury the President would have had a rock solid defense: his answer was true. The political consequences of an answer seen as slick and evasive were devastating, but the testimony was not criminal.

Why Proof of Perjury Is So Demanding

As these cases demonstrate, proving perjury is difficult. This is by design. As the Court noted in Bronston, if perjury is not narrowly construed even honest witnesses might fear to testify. Being examined under oath is stressful and unfamiliar territory for most people. Questions may be misunderstood or misinterpreted. Witnesses might forget relevant information. People should not fear being charged with perjury for inaccurate testimony that may have resulted simply from confusion, stress, or misunderstanding.

This is particularly true considering how easy it usually is for a skilled questioner to avoid any such confusion. The questioner must be alert to any evasion or uncertainty and ask appropriate follow-up questions. For example, the lawyer in Bronston failed to ask the obvious next question: “I didn’t ask about the company Mr. Bronston. Did you personally ever have any Swiss bank accounts?” And the questioner in President Clinton’s deposition also failed to follow up: “OK, so you say there is no sexual relationship of any kind. Was there ever?”

It’s not enough if testimony ends up being misleading or unclear. Perjury prosecutions are only successful when a good questioner has removed any reasonable possibility of uncertainty or confusion. Short of that, there is usually too much wiggle room. If the witness later claims the answer was literally true or the question was misinterpreted, proving a deliberate lie beyond a reasonable doubt will be extremely difficult.

Did Jeff Sessions Commit Perjury?

With these principles in mind, let’s consider whether there might be a valid perjury case against Sessions. His critics have focused on his statement to Senator Franken that he “did not have communications with the Russians.” Taken in isolation, that is untrue. But Franken’s question was based on a news report that Trump campaign representatives had been in contact with Russian officials. Sessions’s statement was preceded by his observation that he was occasionally considered a campaign surrogate.

Given the context of Franken’s question and Sessions’s full response, it’s not unreasonable for Sessions to maintain he was referring to any Russian contacts he may have had in his role as a campaign surrogate. Both the question and answer were couched in terms of contacts by the campaign. If it’s true his meetings had nothing to do with the campaign, Sessions could have thought they were not relevant.

Senator Franken has said he believes Sessions should have mentioned the meetings anyway. Sessions himself said in his news conference he now thinks it would have been better if he had done so. But testimony that ends up being misleading or incomplete is not perjury if it is based on an unclear or misinterpreted question the witness thought he was answering.

When it comes to the written questionnaire the potential case against Sessions is even weaker. It specifically asked whether he had communicated with any Russian officials “about the 2016 election.” If in fact his meetings did not involve the election, then his “no” response was completely truthful.

Senator Sessions may have been honestly trying to respond to the questions. He may have been confused or may have interpreted the question differently, as he says. He may have been trying to be cagey to conceal relevant information. Or he may have been deliberately lying. Just as in the case of Mr. Bronston, we’re not sure. And in criminal law, that kind of uncertainty usually translates to reasonable doubt.

Senator Al Franken questions Jeff Sessions

The Unasked Follow-Up Questions

Some have argued that Sessions used his non-responsive answer to pre-empt further questioning by his blanket denial of any contact with the Russians. That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Even if you are willing to commit perjury if forced, why go out of your way to lie about something that wasn’t asked? Why try to head off a line of questions that Sen. Franken did not even appear to be pursuing? Sessions could have easily given some non-committal answer about what he would do as Attorney General without exposing himself to possible perjury charges.

In any event, a non-responsive answer does not “pre-empt” further questioning — it invites it. As the Court said in Bronston, the burden is on the questioner to pin a wily witness down. Imagine if Sen. Franken had followed up with this series of questions:

“Well, OK, I didn’t ask you about your own contacts with the Russians, but since you brought it up — are you testifying that you never had any contact with any Russian officials in your role as an advisor to the Trump campaign?”

“Did you have any contact with any Russian officials at all during the time you served as an advisor to the Trump campaign, whether or not those contacts were on behalf of the campaign?”

“Are you aware of anyone else involved in the Trump campaign who had any contact with representatives of the Russian government?”

“Did anyone in the Trump campaign ever ask you to contact any officials in the Russian government on behalf of the campaign?”

If we had answers to these questions, there would be no ambiguity. If Sessions had denied any contact with Russian officials in any capacity at all, the perjury argument would be much stronger. On the other hand, if he had responded truthfully about his meetings with the Russian ambassador, all the controversy of the past week would have been avoided.

Political Remedies v. Criminal Remedies

Critics of Sessions may say I am being too lenient. They may say I am bending over backwards to give him the benefit of the doubt. Yes, I am. That’s how the criminal justice system works. Sessions is innocent until proven guilty – not the other way around. And proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to a unanimous jury is a lot tougher than indicting someone on Twitter.

Many are convinced that Sessions deliberately lied. They may be correct. But a criminal case has to be based on evidence, not on gut feelings and suspicious circumstances. Currently the government could muster little in the way of admissible evidence to contradict what Sessions has said about his intent.

Of course this assumes no additional evidence comes to light. If emails, other documents, or witness testimony were to surface indicating that Sessions’s meetings with the ambassador were in fact on behalf of the campaign, that would completely change the picture.

As with President Clinton and his “meaning of is” answer, the political consequences of all of this for Sessions and Trump may be severe. But political remedies are one thing, and criminal remedies are quite another. At least at this stage, those calling for perjury charges are off the mark.

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