Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor upbraided a federal prosecutor Monday for asking racially-charged questions in court.
The justices almost never elaborate on cases they decline to hear, but Sotomayor took the unusual step of issuing a statement condemning the prosecutor, whom she did not name.
The case at hand came from a drug arrest in Texas. The defendant took a road trip with friends and said he did not know they were planning a drug deal.
The prosecutor in the case invoked racial stereotypes in questioning the defendant's explanation.
“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.
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Sotomayor harshly criticized the questioning in a statement sharing the Supreme Court's decision not to hear an appeal from the defendant.
"Such conduct diminishes the dignity of our criminal justice system and undermines respect for the rule of law," Sotomayor wrote. "We expect the government to seek justice, not to fan the flames of fear and prejudice."
Justice Stephen Breyer joined her statement.
The court rejected an appeal in the case on technical grounds. Sotomayor said she agreed with that decision, noting that the defendant's lawyers limited their ability to appeal by not initially objecting to the prosecutor's questioning during the trial.
Sotomayor also criticized the Justice Department for downplaying the prosecutor's remark and acknowledging too late that it was inappropriate.
"I hope never to see a case like this again," Sotomayor said.