The Corner

Forget Whether She Qualifies as a “Racist.” Would Judge Sotomayor Qualifiy as a Juror?

In every trial — every single trial — judges solemnly instruct American citizens who are compelled to perform jury duty that they will have a sworn obligation to decide cases objectively — without fear or favor. If a person is unwilling or unable to do that, if the person believes he or she has a bias or prejudice, especially one based on a belief that people are inferior or superior due to such factors as race, ethnicity, or sex, the person is not qualified to be a juror. Indeed, prospective jurors are told that they are not qualified if they harbor even the slightest doubt about their ability to put such considerations aside and render an impartial verdict. If the judge or the lawyer for either side senses bias, the juror is excused “for cause” — the parties are not even required to use their discretionary (or “peremptory”) jury challenges to strike such a juror; rather the judge makes a finding that the juror is not fit to serve.

And the stress on impartiality does not end once the prospective jurors, after being carefully vetted for any hint of bias or prejudice during voir dire (the selection process), are finally selected to sit as trial jurors. Instead, the admonition to consider the case fairly, impartially, and without bias of any kind is often repeated many times throughout the trial. And even after that, it is standard procedure to drum the obligation into the jurors again right before they retire to deliberate on a verdict. Here is the standard instruction:

You have two duties as a jury. Your first duty is to decide the facts from the evidence in the case. This is your job, and yours alone. Your second duty is to apply the law that I give you to the facts. You must follow these instructions, even if you disagree with them….  Perform these duties fairly and impartially. Do not allow sympathy, prejudice, fear, or public opinion to influence you. You should not be influenced by any person’s race, color, religion, national ancestry, or sex.

Now let’s forget labels like “racist” for a moment. In our society, “racist” is a radioactive term, whether or not it’s applied accurately. I want instead to home in on the premium our law places on impartiality — how noxious it regards the very notion that any important decision might be “influenced by any person’s race, color, religion, national ancestry, or sex.” No one is saying that those attitudes don’t exist, or even that someone is necessarily a bad person for having such attitudes — sometimes such attitudes are fostered by bitter life experiences that people find themselves unable to get over. But we strive to keep those attitudes out of our law — even to the point of expecting prospective jurors to tell us honestly whether they have such biases so we can make certain they don’t get on a jury. Non-biased decision-making, we tell every ordinary citizen called for jury duty, is the most basic obligation of service in the legal system.

Would Judge Sotomayor be qualified to serve as a juror? Let’s say she forthrightly explained to the court during the voir dire (the jury-selection phase of a case) that she believed a wise Latina makes better judgments than a white male; that she doubts it is actually possible to “transcend [one’s] personal sympathies and prejudices and aspire to achieve a greater degree of fairness and integrity based on the reason of law”; and that there are “basic differences” in the way people “of color” exercise ”logic and reasoning.” If, upon hearing that, would it not be reasonable for a lawyer for one (or both) of the parties to ask the court to excuse her for cause? Would it not be incumbent on the court to grant that request?

Should we have on the Supreme Court, where jury verdicts are reviewed, a justice who would have difficulty qualifying for jury service?


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