WASHINGTON (CN) – The Supreme Court appeared unlikely Monday to endorse Louisiana’s view about whether jury verdicts in state criminal trials must be unanimous.
While Louisiana Solicitor General Elizabeth Murrill said the justices should be cautious about reading the Sixth Amendment as requiring unanimous juries in state criminal proceedings because it would imperil the convictions of 32,000 people who committed serious crimes in her state, Justice Neil Gorsuch indicated he had other interests in mind.
“I can’t help but wonder, well, should we forever ensconce an incorrect view of the United States Constitution for perpetuity, for all states and all people, denying them a right that we believe was originally given to them because of 32,000 criminal convictions in Louisiana?” Gorsuch asked.
While the Supreme Court held in the 1972 case Apodaca v. Oregon that the Constitution requires unanimous juries in federal criminal trials, it did not apply the same standard to trials in state courts.
This proved to be trouble for Evangelisto Ramos after he was suspected in the murder of a woman whose body found in a trash can outside of a New Orleans church in 2014. While Ramos admitted to having sex with the woman the night before her body was found, and his DNA was found in the trash can, he has maintained his innocence throughout his case.
The trial against Ramos lasted two days, and the jury returned a 10-2 verdict, which at the time was enough to convict him under Louisiana law. He received a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
When Louisiana voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2018 that ended nonunanimous juries in the state, however, Oregon was left as the only state in the country that does not require a unanimous verdict in criminal trials. Louisiana’s law change did not apply retroactively though, leaving Ramos’ conviction intact.
Jeffrey Fisher, a Stanford Law professor who argued for Ramos on Monday, said the court should take the chance to correct what has historically been an outlier in how the court applies the Bill of Rights to the states.
He said the plain text of the Sixth Amendment may not explicitly say whether criminal juries must be unanimous, but the requirement was common practice dating to before the founding and therefore informs the amendment’s purpose.
“In a nutshell, we are not prepared to take away someone’s liberty, unless a cross-section of the community uniformly agrees that criminal punishment is appropriate,” Fisher said.
Most of the questions the justices had for Fisher focused on how they should approach the prospect of overturning the court’s holding in Apodaca. Justice Samuel Alito particularly wondered how the court could undo a precedent on which states have built their criminal trial systems for decades.
“Louisiana and Oregon have tried thousands of cases in reliance on Apodaca,” Alito said. “The court said this was okay. We’ve never suggested it wasn’t. We’ve denied cert in lots of cases.”
While arguing for Louisiana, Murrill urged the court to reconsider whether the Sixth Amendment even requires unanimity, saying there is nothing in the amendment suggesting that is what the founders meant to do. She said instead the Constitution largely leaves it up to states to craft the intricacies of their criminal justice systems.
“The beauty of our system is that people can change the rules,” Murrill said. “So if they now want to require unanimity, they can do so. They can amend their state laws, as Louisiana recently did, or they can amend the federal Constitution.”
In addition to Gorsuch’s concerns, Justice Brett Kavanaugh wondered whether the court should consider the racial history of the nonunanimous jury when weighing Louisiana’s interests in preserving the validity of nonunanimous juries. The provision became part of Louisiana’s constitution during reconstruction and there is substantial historical evidence it was included to tamp down the rights of African-Americans.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor also noted that while Louisiana may suffer from having some of its convictions called into question, the consequences could be far worse if the court sided with the state.
“You’re talking about a parade of horribles if we rules against you,” Sotomayor said. “How about the parade of horribles if we rule in your favor? How do we decide what’s at the essence of the common law jury trial?”