A United States prosecutor who tried to win a drug case by invoking racial prejudices received a lesson on Constitutional law from Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor today. Her lucid statement highlights the importance of equal protection under the law.
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The Supreme Court decided not to hear an appeal for the case in question, but something the prosecutor said in an earlier trial offended Sotomayor so much that she had to speak out about it. As CNN's Bill Mears reports, the defendant in this case maintained that he wasn't a willing participant in a Texas drug deal — that he was unaware of what was going on when undercover federal agents busted everyone present for the narcotics sale. The prosecutor — kept anonymous by Sotomayor and CNN but exposed as Assistant United States Attorney Sam L. Ponder by a blogger who did a quick search of public court records — countered his plea of innocence with this racist argument:
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 doesn't take a J.D. to see how clearly racist that argument is, flying in the face of the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause. And in a statement released this morning, Sotomayor singled out Ponder's behavior as unacceptable. Though the Supreme Court won't take up the case, Sotomayor wrote to "dispel any doubt whether the Court’s denial ofcertiorari should be understood to signal our tolerance of a federal prosecutor’s racially charged remark." She clarifies, "I hope never to see a case like this again," concluding:
It is deeply disappointing to see a representative of the United States resort to this basic tactic more than a decade into the 21st century ... We expect the government to seek justice, not fan the flames of fear and prejudice.
Justice Stephen Breyer co-signed the statement. In addition to Sotomayor's much-needed perspective on race and justice, all the attention toward this case has also brought up the question of anonymity. AUSA Ponder uttered the racist argument in trial, knowing full well that it would end up in public records. The blogger who first cited him by name, who goes by "Ken" on the law blog Popehat, asks, "Why does the system protect the names of prosecutors even on the rare occasions that the system criticizes them? .... Isn't that just part of a system that makes it vanishingly rare for prosecutors to be held accountable in any way for misdeeds?"
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The shaming of prosecutors, it seems, runs deep.