Two US Supreme Court decisions on criminal law this week.

Pena-Rodriguez v Colorado:

Ruling (legalese): When a juror in a criminal trial relies on racial bias to convict a defendant, the no-impeachment rule does not shield the jury’s verdict from reconsideration on Sixth Amendment grounds.

Ruling (real words): The Sixth Amendment grants criminal defendants the right to a jury trial. Generally, the jury verdict is sacred: we accept it as-is no matter how they reached their decision. The idea is to promote a robust jury discussion without fear of being called out in public later. But if the jury strays too far from the facts presented at trial, or if they rely too heavily on biases and opinions, they no longer serve the function the Sixth Amendment requires.

Most of the time, however, it’s hard to prove what the jury was thinking because of the “no-impeachment rule,” which is a rule of evidence that prevents jurors from testifying about the deliberation process.

Here, the court found that, when a juror clearly states that they convicted a defendant based on a bias against the defendant’s race, the Sixth Amendment beats the no-impeachment rule, meaning that the juror can be forced to testify, potentially calling the verdict into question and requiring a new trial.

Importance: It’s not very common that a juror straight-up says “I convicted him because he’s one of those awful Mexicans.” Racial bias influences decisions all the time, but most racial bias is unconscious, and the few actual out-and-out racists know better than to speak up about it.

But every once in a while, a juror does get caught being an honest-to-goodness bigot in the year of our Lord 2017. In those cases, the defendant now has a better chance at a fresh (and hopefully less racist) trial.

Beckles v. US:

Ruling (legalese): sentencing guidelines cannot be void for unconstitutional vagueness.

Ruling (real words): Laws that are too unclear are sometimes found unconstitutional, or, as the J.D. community says, “void for vagueness”. The Due Process requires that laws be clear enough that the citizens can understand, and it forbids the government from selectively enforcing unclear laws.

However, sentencing guidelines aren’t rules; they’re, well, guidelines. Sentencing has always been mostly up to the sentencing court’s judgment. Since it wasn’t too vague when there were no guidelines, it can’t be too vague now that there are guidelines.

Importance: This will further entrench sentencing guidelines, but they were already a fact of life. And in Michigan, none of the guidelines are especially vague. We were unlikely to see a challenge on these grounds anyway.