The Ticket

Sotomayor, Breyer reprimand Texas prosecutor for race comment

Liz Goodwin
The Ticket

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Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer sternly admonished a federal prosecutor in Texas for a racially charged comment he made while cross examining a black defendant in a drug trial two years ago. The justices released the statement as part of the court's decision to decline to hear the defendant's appeal.

The prosecutor, whom Sotomayor declined to name, was questioning defendant Charles Calhoun about his claim that he did not realize his friend was engaging in a drug deal when they were arrested. Calhoun had maintained his innocence, saying he thought he was simply on a road trip when his friend was caught trying to buy cocaine by federal agents.

“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?'" the prosecutor asked.

Sotomayor, joined by Breyer, wrote that the prosecutor "tapped a deep and sorry vein of racial prejudice that has run through the history of criminal justice in our Nation" when he cross examined the defendant in this way. They referenced past court cases where prosecutors have insinuated the race of defendants alone proved their guilt.

Calhoun appealed his guilty verdict up to the Supreme Court, arguing that the prosecutor violated his constitutional rights by the question. The justices agreed with the majority of the court in declining to hear Calhoun's appeal on procedural grounds, but released a separate statement calling out the assistant U.S. attorney in the Western District of Texas. Sam L. Ponder, the attorney who made the remark, declined to comment when reached by Yahoo News on Monday.

"It is deeply disappointing to see a representative of the United States resort to this base tactic more than a decade into the 21st century," the justices continued. "We expect the Government to seek justice, not to fan the flames of fear and prejudice."

The justices added that the federal Justice Department's response to the incident was inadequate. "I hope never to see a case like this again," Sotomayor concluded.

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