Fractured High Court Ruling Says Jury Verdicts Must Be Unanimous

(Photo by Jack Rodgers/Courthouse News Service)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Resolving an anomaly in Bill of Rights adherence, the Supreme Court held Monday that a jury’s verdict must be unanimous to convict someone of a serious crime in state court.

While the requirement for unanimous verdicts at the federal level dates back to the 1972 case Apodaca v. Oregon, an unusual concurring opinion from Justice Lewis Powell stopped that holding from applying to the states. 

Louisiana and Oregon were the only states in the country that did not require unanimous verdicts in criminal trials until 2018, when voters approved a change to the state constitutions. There is substantial historical evidence that the nonunanimous jury provision for both states arose out of a desire to suppress minorities. 

Louisiana has since ended the practice, but provided no relief to Evangelisto Ramos, who was convicted of the murder of Fedison, a woman whose body was found in a trash can outside of a New Orleans church in 2014. Ramos admitted to having sex with Fedison the night before her body was found and his DNA was found on the trash can, but he has maintained his innocence throughout his case. 

Mercedes Montagnes, the executive director of the Promise of Justice Institute, which represented Ramos, said the decision “offers the promise of healing for our state which has existed under the specter of this racist law for over a century.” 

“Today, the U.S. Supreme Court reckoned with the largest standing monument to the confederacy with this historic ruling,” Montagnes said in a statement. “We are eager to make sure that Louisianans are given the full protections of the Constitution’s promise and that this victory is not hallow.” 

After a two-day trial, a jury convicted Ramos in a 10-2 verdict. He later received a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

In 2017, the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal supported the constitutionality of nonunanimous verdicts, and the Louisiana Supreme Court declined to review the holding.

In a somewhat fractured opinion for the high court majority, Justice Neil Gorsuch was joined at least in part by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Brett Kavanaugh. 

Justice Clarence Thomas concurred only in the judgment, writing separately that he would have taken a different approach to avoid parsing the Sixth Amendment as Gorsuch had. 

Gorsuch began his opinion by recounting the 14th century origins of the unanimous jury verdict requirement, its adoption in the United States, and the role racism played in the genesis of both Oregon and Louisiana’s laws carrying on the tradition. 

Writing separately, Sotomayor said the racist origins of nonunanimous jury laws are a necessary part of the court’s consideration, even though Ramos did not bring an equal protection claim. 

Gorsuch meanwhile cut through Louisiana’s arguments for allowing nonunanimous juries, including its contention that James Madison’s original text of the amendment included the right to a unanimous jury, only for the condition to be dropped before ratification. 

Gorsuch noted the same could be said for several other hallmarks of trial-by-jury that also fell out of the original text, suggesting those conditions, including unanimity, were so fundamental to the concept of a jury trial that they did not need to be explicitly stated. 

“Taking the state’s argument from drafting history to its logical conclusion would thus leave the right to a ‘trial by jury’ devoid of meaning,” Gorsuch wrote. “A right mentioned twice in the Constitution would be reduced to an empty promise. That can’t be right.”

The decision has been long sought, said Hannah Cox, national manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty.

“While we applaud this decision, it is an embarrassment on our system that it was not held until 2020,” Cox said in an email. “There remain in prisons, and even on death rows, those who were convicted by nonunanimous juries that we hope the courts will hasten to reckon with as well.”

Louisiana sought a “functionalist approach” by the high court, focusing only on which portions of a jury trial are worthy of being covered in the Sixth Amendment’s unstated mandates. The idea held little appeal for Gorsuch.

“When the American people chose to enshrine that right in the Constitution, they weren’t suggesting fruitful topics for future cost-benefit analyses,” Gorsuch wrote. “They were seeking to ensure that their children’s children would enjoy the same hard-won liberty they enjoyed. As judges, it is not our role to reassess whether the right to a unanimous jury is ‘important enough’ to retain.” 

Still speaking for the majority, Gorsuch wrote the court has little reason to cling to Apodaca’s holding. Even if the state needs to retry hundreds of cases of people who were not convicted unanimously, every Supreme Court decision that creates a new precedent in criminal law comes with the same risk. 

“In the end, the best anyone can seem to muster against Mr. Ramos is that, if we dared to admit in his case what we all know to be true about the Sixth Amendment, we might have to say the same in some others,” Gorsuch wrote. “But where is the justice in that?”

With the support of Ginsburg and Breyer, Gorsuch wrote he would even go so far as to say Apodaca did not establish a precedent. 

Expressing his own view of the precedential force of Apodaca, Kavanaugh said he agreed Apodaca must be overruled because it was “egregiously wrong,” created “significant negative consequences” and overruling it would not cause significant disruption. 

In a 26-page dissent that Chief Justice John Roberts joined entirely and that Justice Elena Kagan largely joined as well, Justice Samuel Alito wrote the majority was too quick to toss aside Apodaca. 

Alito wrote Gorsuch’s majority was too dismissive of the degree to which Louisiana and Oregon relied upon the decades-old decision. 

“Lowering the bar for overruling our precedents, a badly fractured majority cases aside an important and long-established decision with little regard for the enormous reliance the decision has engendered,” Alito wrote. “If the majority approach is not just a way to dispose of this one case, the decision marks an important turn.” 

Alito also chided the majority for painting Louisiana and Oregon’s laws as racist, “even though there are entirely legitimate arguments for” nonunanimous jury verdicts. 

“If Louisiana and Oregon originally adopted their laws allowing non-unanimous verdicts for these reasons, that is deplorable, but what does that have to do with the broad constitutional question before us?” Alito wrote. “The answer is: nothing.”

An incredulous Alito also questioned how three of his colleagues reached the conclusion that Apodaca never was a precedential decision.

“The only truly fitting response to this argument is: ‘Really,’” Alito wrote. 

In a statement, the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office noted the non-unanimous jury law was based on then-sound Supreme Court precedent.

“Our law has since been changed and the Supreme Court has now issued this new ruling, yet our focus remains the same: to uphold the rule of law and protect victims of crime,” the office said in a statement. “We will continue working to ensure crime victims in Louisiana receive the justice they deserve.”

Prior coverage:
Supreme Court Grapples With Louisiana Law on Unanimous Verdicts
State Bar to Insanity Defense Faces Supreme Court Review

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