Monday, February 25, 2013

Justice Sotomayor on Racism in the Criminal Justice System

Thousands of cases are denied certiorari (hearing) in the Supreme Court every year. These denials, as well as other Court business, are released on Orders Lists on a fairly regular basis while the Supreme Court is in session. At the end of today's list, however, was a comment on a cert denial that I wanted to bring attention to.

Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Breyer, took time to address the repugnant behavior that prompted the case, even though they concurred that it wasn't a reversible error and denied cert petition. I've excerpted the relevant pieces below, taking out the legal reasoning for why cert was denied.

I write to dispel any doubt whether the Court’s denial of certiorari should be understood to signal our tolerance of a federal prosecutor’s racially charged remark. It should not.
 The issue of [Petitioner] Calhoun’s intent came to a head when the prosecutor cross-examined him. Calhoun related that the night before the arrest, he had detached himself from the group when his friend arrived at their hotel room with a bag of money. He stated that he “didn’t know” what was happening, and that it “made me think . . . [t]hat I didn’t want to be there.” Tr. 125–126 (Mar. 8, 2011). (Calhoun had previously testified that he rejoined the group the next morning because he thought they were finally returning home. Id., at 109.) The prosecutor pressed Calhoun repeatedly to explain why he did not want to be in the hotel room. Eventually, the District Judge told the prosecutor to move on. That is when the prosecutor asked, “You’ve got African-Americans, you’ve got Hispanics, you’ve got a bag full of money. Does that tell you—a light bulb doesn’t go off in your head and say, This is a drug deal?


Calhoun, who is African-American, claims that the prosecutor’s racially charged question violated his constitutional rights. Inexplicably, however, Calhoun’s counsel did not object to the question at trial.

Given[...]the unusual way in which this case has been, litigated, I do not disagree with the Court’s decision to deny the petition.

There is no doubt, however, that the prosecutor’s question never should have been posed. “The Constitution prohibits racially biased prosecutorial arguments.” McCleskey v. Kemp, 481 U. S. 279, 309, n. 30 (1987). Such argumentation is an affront to the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws. And by threatening to cultivate bias in the jury, it equally offends the defendant’s right to an impartial jury. Judge Frank put the point well: “If government counsel in a criminal suit is allowed to inflame the jurors by irrelevantly arousing their deepest prejudices, the jury may become in his hands a lethal weapon directed against defendants who may be innocent. He should not be permitted to summon that thirteenth juror, prejudice.” United States v. Antonelli Fireworks Co., 155 F. 2d 631, 659 (CA2 1946) (dissenting opinion) (footnote omitted). Thus it is a settled professional standard that a “prosecutor should not make arguments calculated to appeal to the prejudices of the jury.” ABA Standards for Criminal Justice, Prosecution Function and Defense Function, Standard 3–5.8(c), p. 106 (3d ed.1993).

By suggesting that race should play a role in establishing a defendant’s criminal intent, the prosecutor here tapped a deep and sorry vein of racial prejudice that has run through the history of criminal justice in our Nation. There was a time when appeals to race were not uncommon, when a prosecutor might direct a jury to “‘consider the fact that Mary Sue Rowe is a young white woman and that this defendant is a black man for the purpose of determining his intent at the time he entered Mrs. Rowe’s home,’” Holland v. State, 247 Ala. 53, 22 So. 2d 519, 520 (1945), or assure a jury that “‘I am well enough acquainted with this class of niggers to know that they have got it in for the [white] race in their heart,’” Taylor v. State, 50 Tex. Crim. 560, 561, 100 S. W. 393 (1907). The prosecutor’s comment here was surely less extreme. But it too was pernicious in its attempt to substitute racial stereotype for evidence, and racial prejudice for reason.

It is deeply disappointing to see a representative of the United States resort to this base tactic more than a decade into the 21st century. Such conduct diminishes the dignity of our criminal justice system and undermines respect for the rule of law. We expect the Government to seek justice, not to fan the flames of fear and prejudice. In discharging the duties of his office in this case, the Assistant United States Attorney for the Western District of Texas missed the mark.

Also troubling are the Government’s actions on appeal. Before the Fifth Circuit, the Government failed to recognize the wrongfulness of the prosecutor’s question, instead calling it only “impolitic” and arguing that “even assuming the question crossed the line,” it did not prejudice the outcome. Brief for United States in No. 11–50605, pp. 19, 20. This prompted Judge Haynes to “clear up any confusion—the question crossed the line.” 478 Fed. Appx. 193, 196 (CA5 2012) (concurring opinion). In this Court, the Solicitor General has more appropriately conceded that the “prosecutor’s racial remark was unquestionably improper.” Brief in Opposition 7–8. Yet this belated acknowledgment came only after the Solicitor General waived the Government’s response to the petition at first,leaving the Court to direct a response.

I hope never to see a case like this again. (emphases added)
I will not agree with much of Justice Sotomayor's jurisprudence, but kudos to her (and Justice Breyer) for admonishing the prosecutor and his federal apologists.

bellum medicamenti delenda est

UPDATE: Ken at Popehat brings up a good point: Why hadn't anyone called him out by name? (He is AUSA Sam L. Ponder.) I still think it's noteworthy that Sotomayor wrote what she did, but I leave to actual lawyers like Ken to complain whether or not namedropping him would be appropriate in the context of a legal opinion.

That said, Ken did what CNN, Chicago Tribune, other media (and I) failed to do: a casename search on PACER. Regardless of the reasons Justice Sotomayor didn't use Ponder's name, the media have a professional duty to find truth and should have done a simple search to find out. Thanks, Ken.

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