Justice Sotomayor benchslaps local prosecutor for racist comments
To steal a term from the often-hilarious legal blog Above the Law, a local prosecutor today got a stunning benchslap from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who chided him for racist comments in court.
After denying the appeal of convicted drug dealer Bongani Charles Calhoun on procedural grounds, Sotomayor issued a rare, scathing opinion aimed squarely Assistant U.S. Attorney Sam Ponder to “dispel any doubt” to whether the justices tolerated the Ponder’s “racially charged” remarks in court.
Calhoun was arrested in 2008 on drug conspiracy charges. At issue in his case was whether he knew of the deal, or whether he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Two co-conspirators who pleaded guilty have already testified that Calhoun was knowingly involved. Officers also testified that Calhoun discussed the drug deal with them before they broke cover and took down the operation.
At trial, Ponder questioned Calhoun, saying, “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?”
“It is deeply disappointing to see a representative of the United States resort to this base tactic more than a decade into the 21 st century,” Sotomayor wrote.
Sotomayor, the high court’s first Latina justice, wrote that Ponder’s comments “tapped a deep and sorry vein of racial prejudice that has run through the history of criminal justice in our nation.” Sotomayor, who wrote the opinion but was also joined by Justice Stephen Breyer, listed excerpts from prosecutors’ arguments to highlight our not-too-distant racist past. “[C]onsider the fact that Mary Sue Rowe is a young white woman and that this defendant is a black man for the purposes of determining his intent at the time he entered Mrs. Rowe’s home,” an Alabama prosecutor argued in 1945. Or this more troubling example from Texas in 1907: “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.”
Ponder’s remarks in Calhoun’s case were “surely less extreme,” Sotomayor wrote. “But it too was pernicious in its attempt to substitute racial stereotype for evidence, and racial prejudice for reason,” Sotomayor wrote.
Ponder, for his part, has conceded the question was in poor taste. “It was just one of those throw-out questions based on the people he described being in the room,” he told the E-N. “It could have been phrased a little better.”
Still, Sotomayor spared no wrath, saying Ponder’s conduct “diminishes the dignity of our criminal justice system and undermines the rule of law. We expect the Government to seek justice, not to fan the flames of fear and prejudice.”
In ending her opinion, Sotomayor wrote, “I hope never to see a case like this again.” – Michael Barajas