Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor accused a Texas federal prosecutor Monday of tapping into a “deep and sorry vein of racial prejudice” in his questioning of a black man facing a drug charge.
The justices did not accept Bongani Charles Calhoun’s request that the court review his conviction, but Sotomayor appended a scathing statement to make sure that the court’s denial would not be seen as a signal of “tolerance of a federal prosecutor’s racially charged remark.”
Sotomayor did not name Assistant U.S. Attorney Sam L. Ponder in her statement, but she denounced his questioning of Calhoun, who maintained in court that he did not know that the friends with whom he was traveling were planning a drug deal.
Ponder had asked Calhoun: “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?’ ”
Sotomayor, who in 2009 became the court’s first Hispanic member, said Ponder’s question was “pernicious in its attempt to substitute racial stereotype for evidence, and racial prejudice for reason.”
She added: “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. Such conduct diminishes the dignity of our criminal justice system and undermines respect for the rule of law. We expect the government to seek justice, not to fan the flames of fear and prejudice.”
In an interview, Ponder said that “I can’t disagree with the idea she was expressing” and contended he “wasn’t trying to interject race” into the case.