Pena-Rodriguez v Colorado

Pena-Rodriguez sought review of the Colorado Supreme Court’s rejection of his argument that he should be allowed to attack the jury verdict based on evidence one of the juror voted to convict based in large part on anti-Hispanic bias. The Court, 5-3 with two dissenting opinions filed, reversed and remanded. After reviewing the common law, Court precedent and the variety of approaches of state supreme courts and federal courts of appeal, the majority held that purging racism from the jury system is compelling and different in kind form the kinds of allegations which the Court has held insufficient to impeach a verdict such as juror drunkenness or generalized bias in favor of a defendant. That the tools which were held sufficient as to other kinds of misconduct are not able to purge out racism and thus when clear direct evidence of racial bias as a substantial factor in reaching the verdict is presented, as here, the no impeachment of verdicts rule must give way. The majority noted that limits on contacts with jurors are valid and here two jurors approached Pena-Rodriguez’s attorneys with their concerns shortly after the verdict was returned and further noted that in 17 jurisdictions that follow this approach there has been no evidence of increased harassment of jurors. Justice Thomas dissented arguing that the original understanding or the 6th and 14th Amendments did not include a right to challenge a jury verdict on grounds of racial bias. Justice Alito, joined by Roberts and Thomas, dissented arguing that the mechanisms recognized in Court precedent, voir dire, observation by attorneys and court officials, pre-verdict reports by jurors and post-verdict nonjuror evidence, are sufficient in the racial bias context as attorneys can effectively question prospective jurors and there is insufficient evidence that juror are unwilling to report racist comments before verdicts. He also argued that under the 6th Amendment, an impartial jury is required and there is no basis to single out racial impartiality forma all other kinds of bias and it is underinclusive as national origin and religious bias should also meet the majority’s standard. He finally argued this decision will undermine jury independence and full frank deliberations as juror harassment will increase.

Beckles v United States

Beckles sought review of his sentence arguing the residual crime of violence clause was unconstitutionally vague. Resolving a circuit split on the issue, the Court, with two justices concurring in judgment and Kagan recused, affirmed. The majority held that the sentencing guidelines are directed at the discretion of the district court and thus are not subject to vagueness attacks as the guidelines tell offenders neither how to avoid enhanced sentences as district court retain power to enhance directly under sentencing statutes nor allow arbitrary enforcement.  It noted allowing vagueness challenges here would also put the sentencing statutes as a whole at risk and noted due process review still applies. Justice Kennedy added a concurrence noting that arbitrary sentences may implicate constitutional concerns, but those concerns are not part of vagueness analysis. Justice Ginsberg concurred in judgment arguing that the guidelines commentary clearly states Beckles’ crime of possessing a sawed off shotguns is a crime of violence, the guidelines are not vague as to him and he has no right to ague vagueness as to others. Justice Sotomayor concurred in judgment arguing that the majority decision is unsound because the guidelines effectively set the parameters of punishment and vague guidelines create a high risk of arbitrariness, vagueness challenges should be allowed.  She argued the majority approach adopts a formalism not applied before and the fact purely discretionary sentencing systems have been upheld does not change the harm when a vague guideline is used, as the guideline is impossible to understand and this is unfair.

Rippo v Baker

Rippo sought review of the denial of his new trial motion based on evidence the district attorney was investigating the trial judge for corruption during the time of trial. The Court summarily reversed and remanded per curium holding the Nevada Supreme Court failed to analyze whether the risk of actual bias was too high for the trial to be constitutional.