This week, Sonia Sotomayor showed that her experience as a Latina, female justice on the Supreme Court – which is made up of mostly white males – gives her a unique perspective.
In 1987, an all-white jury sat on the capital murder trial of a then 18-year-old black man, Timothy Tyrone Foster, who was accused of killing an elderly white woman. During the jury selection process for the trial, four potential black jurors were all dismissed by prosecutors for reasons that they claim weren’t race related, (except new evidence points to the fact that they probably were). Foster was ultimately found guilty, and sentenced to death.
Just two years prior to Foster v. Chatman, a case called Batson v. Kennedy established a rule to prevent juries from being stacked in racially motivated ways against minorities. But after Foster’s lawyers got the jury selection notes 20 years later, they learned that the four black people being considered for the jury were marked “Definite NOs,” according to Slate.
The Supreme Court is currently hearing the case, with the state of Georgia firmly standing behind their jury-selection process. One of the reasons given for dismissing a potential black juror, Marilyn Garrett, was that her cousin had a drug arrest (which presumably might bias her against the legal system). Upon learning this, Sotomayor leaned over and kept it real with Georgia’s deputy attorney general, Beth Burton.
“What did they do with the failure to ask Ms. Garrett any questions about the issues that troubled them, for example, her cousin’s arrest?,” Sotomayor said. “There’s an assumption that she has a relationship with this cousin. I have cousins who I know have been arrested, but I have no idea where they’re in jail. I hardly—I don’t know them. But he didn’t ask any questions. Doesn’t that show pretext?”
As Slate writer Dahlia Lithwick notes, “That doesn’t happen every day. [….] there sure is something palpably different about a Supreme Court justice casually admitting that she has cousins in jail that she has lost track of.”
Just like that, Sotomayor showed that what her cousins have done has no reflection on her own life, and nor should it carry any weight in the jury-selection process.