Recent U.S. Supreme Court Jury Decision

The United States Supreme Court recently published a decision regarding jury trial rights and procedures. The case involves the possible bias of a jury member and the impact upon the defendant’s rights to a fair jury trial. The Supreme Court held “[w]here a juror makes a clear statement indicating that 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.” Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, 580 U.S. ____ (2017), case no. 15-606, March 6, 2017.

Although the ruling of this case is important, as they usually are with Supreme Court decisions, this author was particularly drawn to the opening paragraph of the decision. The right to a jury trial is fundamental to our system of jurisprudence. The importance of the jury cannot be overstated. Justice Kennedy began the Court’s ruling with this paragraph:

The jury is a central foundation of our justice system and our democracy. Whatever its imperfections in a particular case, the jury is a necessary check on governmental power. The jury, over the centuries, has been an inspired, trusted, and effective instrument for resolving factual disputes and determining ultimate questions of guilt or innocence in criminal cases. Over the long course, its judgments find acceptance in the community, an acceptance essential to respect for the rule of law. The jury is a tangible implementation of the principle that the law comes from the people.

Pena-Rodriguez, at *1.

It is regular practice for defendants in the criminal justice system to waive their rights to a jury and instead face a trial by a judge or enter into a negotiated guilty plea. These are both common and accepted practices and there is no inherent flaw with either so long as the defendant proceeds in a knowing and intelligent fashion. Before doing so, some thought should be given to the importance of the right being waived. Hard-earned constitutional freedoms should not be waived lightly.

For more information on this case or any other criminal law topic, please contact the author, attorney James R. Doerr of Lavelle Law, at (847) 705-7555 or