The Supreme Court reinforced the need for reliability in criminal cases, ruling today in Ramos v. Louisiana that the Sixth Amendment’s right to trial by jury requires a unanimous jury verdict to convict a defendant of a serious offense.
A single juror’s vote to acquit is enough to prevent a conviction in 48 States and federal court. But Louisiana and Oregon permitted a defendant to be convicted on the votes of only 10 jurors. The petitioner in this case, Evangelisto Ramos, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole even though two jurors voted to acquit him.
Writing for the Court, Justice Neil Gorsuch found that it is clear—and always has been clear—that the Sixth Amendment right to trial by an impartial jury means that a jury must reach a unanimous verdict in order to convict. Indeed, he wrote, by the time the states ratified the Sixth Amendment in 1791, unanimous verdicts had been required for about 400 years. And the Court has said 13 times over 120 years that the Sixth Amendment requires unanimity.
The only outlier is a divided Supreme Court decision from 1972 in which the Court upheld Louisiana and Oregon’s schemes in Apodaca v. Oregon and a companion case, Johnson v. Louisiana. The Court concluded today that Apodaca was wrongly decided and overruled it, reasoning that protecting the Sixth Amendment’s fair trial guarantees was more important than respecting precedent.
“While overruling precedent must be rare,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in her concurring opinion, “this Court should not shy away from correcting its errors where the right to avoid imprisonment pursuant to unconstitutional procedures hangs in the balance.”
Ensuring reliability in criminal proceedings is also worth the cost of requiring Louisiana and Oregon to retry defendants convicted of felonies by nonunanimous verdicts, the Court found. Justice Gorsuch wrote that asking two states to retry some prior criminal cases “cannot outweigh the interest we all share in the preservation of our constitutionally promised liberties.”
The best argument against Mr. Ramos, Justice Gorsuch concluded, “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.”
“But where is the justice in that?,” he continued.
“Every judge must learn to live with the fact he or she will make some mistakes; it comes with the territory. But it is something else entirely to perpetuate something we all know to be wrong only because we fear the consequences of being right.”
The Court also took into account the origins of Louisiana’s and Oregon’s nonunanimity laws, which courts in both states have frankly acknowledged are rooted in racial bias.
Louisiana adopted nonunanimous verdicts for serious crimes in 1898 at a constitutional convention expressly intended to “establish the supremacy of the white race.” The delegates not only enacted constitutional provisions—like poll taxes and literacy tests—to prevent African Americans from voting, but they also created a “facially race-neutral” rule permitting 10-to-2 verdicts in order “to ensure that African-American juror service would be meaningless.”
Adopted in the 1930s, the Court explained, Oregon’s rule permitting nonunanimous verdicts can be similarly traced to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and efforts to dilute “the influence of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities on Oregon juries.”
Justice Sotomayor wrote in her concurrence that lawmakers might be able to remove a law’s “discriminatory taint” by “actually confront[ing] a law’s tawdry past in reenacting it,” but neither Louisiana’s nor Oregon’s legislature have ever “truly grappled with the laws’ sordid history in reenacting them.” Now, she concluded, those laws “are fully—and rightly—relegated to the dustbin of history.”
The Court’s opinion addresses the serious problems created by the nonunanimity rules of Louisiana and Oregon but shines a light on other practices as well. While most states require unanimous sentencing verdicts from juries, Alabama is the only state where a person can be sentenced to death based on a jury’s nonunanimous verdict. Eighty percent of all death sentences in Alabama were nonunanimous.