Will Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado Permit Challenges to Civil Jury Verdicts Based on Racial Bias?

In Edmonson v. Leesville Concrete Co., 500 U.S. 614 (1991) the Supreme Court held that a private litigant in a civil jury trial may not use racially‐motivated peremptory strikes any more than a government prosecutor may during a criminal trial, “Racial discrimination has no place in the courtroom, whether the proceeding is civil or criminal.” The Supreme Court explained that, for the limited purpose of jury selection, private litigants act as “government actors” and thus cannot violate the jurors’ constitutionally guaranteed equal protection rights.  Although mostly used in criminal cases, such Batson challenges to a racially motivated peremptory strike are occasionally utilized in civil cases during the selection process.

Recently, in Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, 197 L. Ed. 2d 107 (3/6/17), the Supreme Court has held that inquiry can be made into the validity of a jury verdict to permit the trial court to consider evidence of a juror’s statement suggesting that racial bias influenced his decision to find a defendant guilty of harassment and unlawful sexual contact.  One juror told the other jurors that he believed defendant was guilty because, in his experience as a former law enforcement officer, “Mexican men had a bravado that caused them to believe they could do whatever they wanted with women”

Although Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado involved a criminal conviction, it is likely that it will be applicable in civil cases as well, as the Supreme Court cited Edmonson after stating: “To guard against discrimination in jury selection, the Court has ruled that no litigant may exclude a prospective juror on the basis of race.”

In civil cases, racial bias can play a role, either for or against a particular litigant.  Generally the sanctity of jury verdicts is upheld by the courts and inquiry into why or how a jury reached a particular verdict has not been permitted.  However, the U.S. Supreme Court has apparently opened the door to such inquiry if there is evidence of racial bias affecting the outcome.

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