The Supreme Court of the United States on Tuesday suggested that racial bias in the jury room may trump the centuries-old legal principle of secrecy in jury deliberations.
The justices heard an appeal from an immigrant in Colorado who was convicted by a jury on which one man reportedly tied the defendant's guilt to his Hispanic heritage.
The Supreme Court has resisted the call in earlier cases to examine what was said in the jury room. But several justices appeared persuaded that allegations of racial bias raised by defendant Miguel Angel Pena Rodriguez justify piercing the sanctity of jury deliberations when the constitutional right to a fair trial is at stake.
Justice Stephen Breyer said questioning jurors in such cases may be needed to "create a jury system that is seen as fair."
Chief Justice John Roberts worried that the door to the jury room might be opened too wide and wondered whether sex, religious and other discrimination also should be investigated.
Justice Samuel Alito said a jury's decision to reach a verdict by flipping a coin was just as unfair.
Jeffrey Fisher, representing Pena Rodriguez, said the court could limit its opinion to race, for now. "The reason why is this court has said time and again that race is different," Fisher said. He said 18 states allow racial bias claims to be investigated.
The dispute arose after a jury convicted Pena Rodriguez of inappropriately touching teenage girls.
Two jurors said that a third determined that he was guilty because Pena Rodriguez is "Mexican, and Mexican men take whatever they want."
No other juror was alleged to have said anything improper and all 12 jurors, including the two who reported the inappropriate comments, voted to convict him.
Lawyers for Colorado and the Obama administration acknowledged that the statements attributed to the juror identified only as H.C. were indefensible. But they told the court Tuesday that jury secrecy is crucial to the judicial system and said there are better ways to address racial bias on juries, including closer screening of potential jurors.
Jurors also could be encouraged to report misconduct during deliberations before a verdict is reached, they said.
A decision in Pena Rodriguez v. Colorado, 15-606, is expected by spring.