The Supreme Court ruled today that the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial requires criminal convictions to be decided unanimously in most cases in state courts, overturning a previous decision from the 1970s.
Prior to Ramos v. Louisiana making its way up to the Supreme Court, 48 states and federal courts already required a unanimous conviction for most criminal charges. Louisiana and Oregon were both outliers, permitting 10-2 verdicts.
Evangelisto Ramos was convicted in 2015 of second-degree murder by one of those split juries in Louisiana. He challenged his conviction, hoping the Supreme Court would affirm that the Sixth Amendment required unanimous convictions and that this provision applies to state convictions under the 14th Amendment, not just federal convictions.
Today he got his wish. The ruling is rather complicated in part because of a Supreme Court ruling from 1972, Apodaca v. Oregon, which upheld non-unanimous verdicts for state courts. Today's decision reverses Apodaca, and that helps explain the unusual combination of dissenters. Supporting today's ruling (in various degrees and for varying justifications) were justices Neil Gorsuch (who wrote the decision), Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Brett Kavanaugh, and Clarence Thomas. Opposing were Chief Justice John Roberts, Samuel Alito (who wrote the dissent), and Elena Kagan.
Gorsuch's ruling notes that the implementation of Louisiana's and Oregon's non-unanimous convictions were deeply and openly rooted in racism. They were designed so that black members of the jury could be overruled by white jurors to convict black defendants. It's not even a controversial interpretation of what happened. Leaders in the states who pushed these jury rules were very open about it at the time. And despite the Apodaca ruling, the Supreme Court has regularly held in at least 13 other rulings that the Sixth Amendment requires unanimity. Gorsuch writes:
This Court has, repeatedly and over many years, recognized that the Sixth Amendment requires unanimity. As early as 1898, the Court said that a defendant enjoys a "constitutional right to demand that his liberty should not be taken from him except by the joint action of the court and the unanimous verdict of a jury of twelve persons." A few decades later, the Court elaborated that the Sixth Amendment affords a right to "a trial by jury as understood and applied at common law…includ[ing] all the essential elements as they were recognized in this country and England when the Constitution was adopted."
Sotomayor wrote a concurring ruling to emphasize that Apodaca was a particularly unique ruling that was simply irreconcilable with other rulings about the Sixth Amendment and its application to jury unanimity. She notes that stare decisis—the legal principle that the Supreme Court should be reluctant to overturn past precedents—is at its weakest when those previous decisions "implicate fundamental constitutional protections." Kavanaugh also wrote separately to take note, like Sotomayor, of the number of times that the court has abandoned stare decisis to overrule any number of former Supreme Court precedents and declares the Apodaca ruling "egregiously wrong." Thomas wrote separately to concur with the judgment but to argue that the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, not the Due Process Clause, calls for the reversal of Apodaca.
The reason for the dissent by Roberts, Alito, and Kagan is not because the three are big fans of racially motivated conviction guidelines but because they are concerned about potential impacts of this deviation from stare decisis. Alito is concerned that Oregon and Louisiana may now have to go back and contend with these non-unanimous verdicts.
Ultimately, the ruling seems to be much less about jury decisions in general (Louisiana voters subsequently passed a referendum in 2018 requiring unanimous jury decisions), and more about the circumstances by which the Supreme Court overturns previous precedents and its meaning for future cases that might come before the court. As Jonathan Adler at The Volokh Conspiracy notes, Kagan is one of the court's strongest supporters of stare decisis, explaining why she might break from some colleagues she's typically aligned with for this case. Analysis of this case may revolve less around what it means for criminal justice (though certainly establishing that criminal verdicts must be unanimous is important) and more around what it means for controversial challenges to past Supreme Court rulings that might be taken up in the future.
Read the verdict here.