Certiorari To The Supreme Court Of Colorado

No. 15-606. Argued October 11, 2016--Decided March 6, 2017

A Colorado jury convicted petitioner Peņa-Rodriguez of harassment and unlawful sexual contact. Following the discharge of the jury, two jurors told defense counsel that, during deliberations, Juror H. C. had expressed anti-Hispanic bias toward petitioner and petitioner’s alibi witness. Counsel, with the trial court’s supervision, obtained affidavits from the two jurors describing a number of biased statements by H. C. The court acknowledged H. C.’s apparent bias but denied petitioner’s motion for a new trial on the ground that Colorado Rule of Evidence 606(b) generally prohibits a juror from testifying as to statements made during deliberations in a proceeding inquiring into the validity of the verdict. The Colorado Court of Appeals affirmed, agreeing that H. C.’s alleged statements did not fall within an exception to Rule 606(b). The Colorado Supreme Court also affirmed, relying on Tanner v. United States, 483 U. S. 107, and Warger v. Shauers, 574 U. S. ___, both of which rejected constitutional challenges to the federal no-impeachment rule as applied to evidence of juror misconduct or bias.

Held: Where 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. Pp. 6–21.

(a) At common law jurors were forbidden to impeach their verdict, either by affidavit or live testimony. Some American jurisdictions adopted a more flexible version of the no-impeachment bar, known as the “Iowa rule,” which prevented jurors from testifying only about their own subjective beliefs, thoughts, or motives during deliberations. An alternative approach, later referred to as the federal approach, permitted an exception only for events extraneous to the deliberative process. This Court’s early decisions did not establish a clear preference for a particular version of the no-impeachment rule, appearing open to the Iowa rule in United States v. Reid, 12 How. 361, and Mattox v. United States, 146 U. S. 140, but rejecting that approach in McDonald v. Pless, 238 U. S. 264.

The common-law development of the rule reached a milestone in 1975 when Congress adopted Federal Rule of Evidence 606(b), which sets out a broad no-impeachment rule, with only limited exceptions. This version of the no-impeachment rule has substantial merit, promoting full and vigorous discussion by jurors and providing considerable assurance that after being discharged they will not be summoned to recount their deliberations or otherwise harassed. The rule gives stability and finality to verdicts. Pp. 6–9.

(b) Some version of the no-impeachment rule is followed in every State and the District of Columbia, most of which follow the Federal Rule. At least 16 jurisdictions have recognized an exception for juror testimony about racial bias in deliberations. Three Federal Courts of Appeals have also held or suggested there is a constitutional exception for evidence of racial bias.

In addressing the common-law no-impeachment rule, this Court noted the possibility of an exception in the “gravest and most important cases.” United States v. Reid, supra, at 366; McDonald v. Pless, supra, at 269. The Court has addressed the question whether the Constitution mandates an exception to Rule 606(b) just twice, rejecting an exception each time. In Tanner, where the evidence showed that some jurors were under the influence of drugs and alcohol during the trial, the Court identified “long-recognized and very substantial concerns” supporting the no-impeachment rule. 483 U. S., at 127. The Court also outlined existing, significant safeguards for the defendant’s right to an impartial and competent jury beyond post-trial juror testimony: members of the venire can be examined for impartiality during voir dire; juror misconduct may be observed the court, counsel, and court personnel during the trial; and jurors themselves can report misconduct to the court before a verdict is rendered. In Warger, a civil case where the evidence indicated that the jury forewoman failed to disclose a prodefendant bias during voir dire, the Court again put substantial reliance on existing safeguards for a fair trial. But the Court also warned, as in Reid and McDonald, that the no-impeachment rule may admit of exceptions for “juror bias so extreme that, almost by definition, the jury trial right has been abridged.” 574 U. S., at ___–___, n. 3. Reid, McDonald, and Warger left open the question here: whether the Constitution requires an exception to the no-impeachment rule when a juror’s statements indicate that racial animus was a significant motivating factor in his or her finding of guilt. Pp. 9–13.

(c) The imperative to purge racial prejudice from the administration of justice was given new force and direction by the ratification of the Civil War Amendments. “[T]he central purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment was to eliminate racial discrimination emanating from official sources in the States.” McLaughlin v. Florida, 379 U. S. 184. Time and again, this Court has enforced the Constitution’s guarantee against state-sponsored racial discrimination in the jury system. The Court has interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment to prohibit the exclusion of jurors based on race, Strauder v. West Virginia, 100 U. S. 303–309; struck down laws and practices that systematically exclude racial minorities from juries, see, e.g., Neal v. Delaware, 103 U. S. 370; ruled that no litigant may exclude a prospective juror based on race, see, e.g., Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U. S. 79; and held that defendants may at times be entitled to ask about racial bias during voir dire, see, e.g., Ham v. South Carolina, 409 U. S. 524. The unmistakable principle of these precedents is that discrimination on the basis of race, “odious in all aspects, is especially pernicious in the administration of justice,” Rose v. Mitchell, 443 U. S. 545, damaging “both the fact and the perception” of the jury’s role as “a vital check against the wrongful exercise of power by the State,” Powers v. Ohio, 499 U. S. 400. Pp. 13–15.

(d) This case lies at the intersection of the Court’s decisions endorsing the no-impeachment rule and those seeking to eliminate racial bias in the jury system. Those lines of precedent need not conflict. Racial bias, unlike the behavior in McDonald, Tanner, or Warger, implicates unique historical, constitutional, and institutional concerns and, if left unaddressed, would risk systemic injury to the administration of justice. It is also distinct in a pragmatic sense, for the Tanner safeguards may be less effective in rooting out racial bias. But while all forms of improper bias pose challenges to the trial process, there is a sound basis to treat racial bias with added precaution. A constitutional rule that racial bias in the justice system must be addressed—including, in some instances, after a verdict has been entered—is necessary to prevent a systemic loss of confidence in jury verdicts, a confidence that is a central premise of the Sixth Amendment trial right. Pp. 15–17.

(e) Before the no-impeachment bar can be set aside to allow further judicial inquiry, there must be a threshold showing that one or more jurors made statements exhibiting overt racial bias that cast serious doubt on the fairness and impartiality of the jury’s deliberations and resulting verdict. To qualify, the statement must tend to show that racial animus was a significant motivating factor in the juror’s vote to convict. Whether the threshold showing has been satisfied is committed to the substantial discretion of the trial court in light of all the circumstances, including the content and timing of the alleged statements and the reliability of the proffered evidence.

The practical mechanics of acquiring and presenting such evidence will no doubt be shaped and guided by state rules of professional ethics and local court rules, both of which often limit counsel’s post-trial contact with jurors. The experience of those jurisdictions that have already recognized a racial-bias exception to the no-impeachment rule, and the experience of courts going forward, will inform the proper exercise of trial judge discretion. The Court need not address what procedures a trial court must follow when confronted with a motion for a new trial based on juror testimony of racial bias or the appropriate standard for determining when such evidence is sufficient to require that the verdict be set aside and a new trial be granted. Standard and existing safeguards may also help prevent racial bias in jury deliberations, including careful voir dire and a trial court’s instructions to jurors about their duty to review the evidence, deliberate together, and reach a verdict in a fair and impartial way, free from bias of any kind. Pp. 17–21.

350 P. 3d 287, reversed and remanded.

Kennedy, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, JJ., joined. Thomas, J., filed a dissenting opinion. Alito, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Roberts, C. J., and Thomas, J., joined.


Certiorari To The United States Court Of Appeals For The Eleventh Circuit

No. 15-8544. Argued November 28, 2016--Decided March 6, 2017

Petitioner Beckles was convicted of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, 18 U. S. C. §922(g)(1). His presentence investigation report concluded that he was eligible for a sentencing enhancement as a “career offender” under United States Sentencing Guideline §4B1.1(a) because his offense qualified as a “crime of violence” under §4B1.2(a)’s residual clause. The District Court sentenced petitioner as a career offender, and the Eleventh Circuit affirmed. Petitioner then filed a postconviction motion to vacate his sentence, arguing that his offense was not a “crime of violence.” The District Court denied the motion, and the Eleventh Circuit affirmed. Petitioner next filed a petition for a writ of certiorari from this Court. While his petition was pending, this Court held that the identically worded residual clause in the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984 (ACCA), §924(e)(2)(b), was unconstitutionally vague, Johnson v. United States, 576 U. S. ___. The Court vacated and remanded petitioner’s case in light of Johnson. On remand, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed again, distinguishing the ACCA’s unconstitutionally vague residual clause from the residual clause in the Sentencing Guidelines.

Held: The Federal Sentencing Guidelines, including §4B1.2(a)’s residual clause, are not subject to vagueness challenges under the Due Process Clause. Pp. 4–13.

(a) The Due Process Clause prohibits the Government from “taking away someone’s life, liberty, or property under a criminal law so vague that it fails to give ordinary people fair notice of the conduct it punishes, or so standardless that it invites arbitrary enforcement.” Johnson, supra, at ___–___. Under the void-for-vagueness doctrine, laws that fix the permissible sentences for criminal offenses must specify the range of available sentences with “sufficient clarity.” United States v. Batchelder, 442 U. S. 114. In Johnson, this Court held that the ACCA’s residual clause fixed—in an impermissibly vague way—a higher range of sentences for certain defendants. But the advisory Guidelines do not fix the permissible range of sentences. They merely guide the exercise of a court’s discretion in choosing an appropriate sentence within the statutory range. Pp. 4–10.

(1) The limited scope of the void-for-vagueness doctrine in this context is rooted in the history of federal sentencing. Congress has long permitted district courts “wide discretion to decide whether the offender should be incarcerated and for how long.” Mistretta v. United States, 488 U. S. 361. Yet this Court has “never doubted the authority of a judge to exercise broad discretion in imposing a sentence within a statutory range,” United States v. Booker, 543 U. S. 220, nor suggested that a defendant can successfully challenge as vague a sentencing statute conferring discretion to select an appropriate sentence from within a statutory range, even when that discretion is unfettered, see Batchelder, supra, at 123, 126. Pp. 6–7.

(2) The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 departed from this regime by establishing several factors to guide district courts in exercising their sentencing discretion. It also created the United States Sentencing Commission and charged it with establishing the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. Because the Guidelines have been rendered “effectively advisory” by this Court, Booker, supra, at 245, they guide district courts in exercising their discretion, but do not constrain that discretion. Accordingly, they are not amenable to vagueness challenges: If a system of unfettered discretion is not unconstitutionally vague, then it is difficult to see how the present system of guided discretion could be. Neither do they implicate the twin concerns underlying vagueness doctrine—providing notice and preventing arbitrary enforcement. The applicable statutory range, which establishes the permissible bounds of the court’s sentencing discretion, provides all the notice that is required. Similarly, the Guidelines do not invite arbitrary enforcement within the meaning of this Court’s case law, because they do not permit the sentencing court to prohibit behavior or to prescribe the sentencing ranges available. Rather, they advise sentencing courts how to exercise their discretion within the bounds established by Congress. Pp. 7–10.

(b) The holding in this case does not render the advisory Guidelines immune from constitutional scrutiny, see, e.g., Peugh v. United States, 569 U. S. ___, or render “sentencing procedure[s]” entirely “immune from scrutiny under the due process clause,” Williams v. New York, 337 U. S. 241, n. 18. This Court holds only that the Sentencing Guidelines are not subject to a challenge under the void-for-vagueness doctrine. Pp. 10–11.

(c) Nor does this holding cast doubt on the validity of the other factors that sentencing courts must consider in exercising their sentencing discretion. See §§3553(a)(1)–(3), (5)–(7). A contrary holding, however, would cast serious doubt on those other factors because many of them appear at least as unclear as §4B1.2(a)’s residual clause. This Court rejects the Government’s argument that the individualized sentencing required by those other factors is distinguishable from that required by the Guidelines. It is far from obvious that §4B1.2(a)’s residual clause implicates the twin concerns of vagueness more than the other factors do, and neither the Guidelines nor the other factors implicate those concerns more than the absence of any guidance at all, which the Government concedes is constitutional. Pp. 11–13.

616 Fed. Appx. 415, affirmed.

Thomas, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Kennedy, Breyer, and Alito, JJ., joined. Kennedy, J., filed a concurring opinion. Ginsburg, J., and Sotomayor, J., filed opinions concurring in the judgment. Kagan, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.