Citing Racist Origins, Supreme Court Strikes Down Nonunanimous Jury Rules in Louisiana and Oregon

Citing Racist Origins, Supreme Court Strikes Down Nonunanimous Jury Rules in Louisiana and Oregon
Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor in an official photo at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington on Nov. 30, 2018. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)
Matthew Vadum

Convicting an accused person of a serious offense with a less-than-unanimous jury verdict, as two states had allowed, runs afoul of the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of a right to a jury trial, the Supreme Court has determined.

The 6–3 ruling concerning split jury verdicts came April 20 in a case cited as Ramos v. Louisiana. The decision also overturns Apodaca v. Oregon, a 1972 Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of nonunanimous criminal convictions in serious felony cases tried in state courts.

In 48 states and federal court, a single juror’s vote to acquit is enough to prevent a conviction, according to a court summary. But Louisiana and Oregon have long punished people as a result of 10-to-2 verdicts.

In the case at hand, petitioner Evangelisto Ramos was convicted of murder in a Louisiana court by a 10-to-2 jury verdict. Instead of the mistrial he would have received almost anywhere else, Ramos received a sentence of life without parole.

After that conviction, Louisiana changed the law, banning nonunanimous convictions for offenses committed, beginning in 2019. The change didn't benefit the already-convicted Ramos, so he took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

It was unclear at press time how many criminal convictions have been put in jeopardy by this ruling, but it could reportedly run into the thousands. Lawsuits over how the ruling applies to individual cases are a certainty.

Writing for the court, Justice Neil Gorsuch stated that “the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial—as incorporated against the States by way of the Fourteenth Amendment—requires a unanimous verdict to convict a defendant of a serious offense.”

Gorsuch wrote that the practice of allowing nonunanimous convictions was rooted in past racial animus.

“Courts in both Louisiana and Oregon have frankly acknowledged that race was a motivating factor in the adoption of their States’ respective nonunanimity rules.

“Louisiana first endorsed nonunanimous verdicts for serious crimes at a constitutional convention in 1898,” Gorsuch wrote.

“According to one committee chairman, the avowed purpose of that convention was to ‘establish the supremacy of the white race,’ and the resulting document included many of the trappings of the Jim Crow era: a poll tax, a combined literacy and property ownership test, and a grandfather clause that in practice exempted white residents from the most onerous of these requirements.”

Convention delegates crafted a “facially race-neutral” rule, allowing 10–2 verdicts to make sure service by blacks on juries would be “meaningless,” he wrote, citing a previous Louisiana court ruling.

Adopted in the 1930s, Oregon’s rule allowing 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,’” Gorsuch wrote citing a previous Oregon court ruling.

The justice noted that at the birth of the 6th Amendment, drafted by James Madison and ratified by the states in 1791, “unanimous verdicts had been required for about 400 years."

“If the term ‘trial by an impartial jury’ carried any meaning at all, it surely included a requirement as long and widely accepted as unanimity.”

Justice Samuel Alito wrote a dissenting opinion, which was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and partly joined by Justice Elena Kagan.

The court’s majority opinion unnecessarily uproots a longstanding practice, Alito suggested.

“The doctrine of stare decisis gets rough treatment in today’s decision. Lowering the bar for overruling our precedents, a badly fractured majority casts aside an important and long-established decision with little regard for the enormous reliance the decision has engendered. If the majority’s approach is not just a way to dispose of this one case, the decision marks an important turn.”

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Brett Kavanaugh wrote separately to explain why the Apodaca ruling should be set aside. Sotomayor noted that the nonunanimous jury rule has “racially biased origins.”

“Overruling precedent here is not only warranted, but compelled,” Sotomayor wrote.