Will The Supreme Court's Recent Ruling to Abolish Non-Unanimous Juries Allow Dangerous Criminals to Go Free?
The United States Supreme Court.
Article III of the U.S. Constitution states that “The judicial power of the United States shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress from time to time ordain and establish.”
Today, we know the judicial branch as a system of federal tribunals that interpret the constitutionality of laws passed by Congress and enforced by the executive branch.
As required by the Constitution, the Supreme Court has ultimate appellate jurisdiction over all federal and state cases that deal with issues conflicting with federal law. Currently, there are eight Associate Justices and one Chief Justice: Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch, Elena Kagan, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer, and Chief Justice John Roberts.
On April 20, 2020, the Court made a major ruling that could potentially impact the number of criminal convictions across the country, specifically:
Non-unanimous jury convictions are now deemed unconstitutional.
In Ramos v. Louisiana, Evangelisto Ramos was charged with second-degree murder and exercised his right to a jury trial. Out of the twelve jurors who participated in the trial, ten found that the prosecution had proven its case against the defendant beyond a reasonable doubt.
Two jurors, however, disagreed and reached the opposite conclusion.
Prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling, only Oregon permitted non-unanimous jury convictions in criminal cases, as Louisiana made a change to its law for criminal convictions that went into effect January 1, 2019. Because of this, Ramos was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Ramos appealed his case to a state appellate court based on two grounds:
1. The Fourteenth Amendment fully incorporated the Sixth Amendment guarantee of unanimous jury verdicts for convictions in federal courts extend to state convictions as well.
2. The Louisiana law – which has existed in the state’s constitution since the late 19th century – was rooted in systemic racism.
In the end, the Louisiana Court of Appeals affirmed the decision of the lower court. Ramos tried to appeal his case to the Louisiana Supreme Court, but was ultimately denied review.
Ramos, in desperation, issued a Writ of Certiorari for the Supreme Court to review his case. On March 18th of last year, Ramos v. Louisiana was granted review by the Supreme Court, and they heard oral arguments on October 7. Several months later, on April 20, 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that unanimous jury verdicts must be used to convict defendants of serious offenses.
This decision has effectively paved the way for potentially hundreds of inmates convicted by non-unanimous juries to receive new trials in Oregon and Louisiana.
In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court reversed the Louisiana Court of Appeals’ ruling that non-unanimous jury verdicts are constitutional. Writing for the majority, Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch declared:
"Wherever we might look to determine what the term 'trial by an impartial jury trial' meant at the time of the Sixth Amendment’s adoption — whether it’s the common law, state practices in the founding era, or opinions and treatises written soon afterward — the answer is unmistakable… A jury must reach a unanimous verdict in order to convict… Not a single Member of this Court is prepared to say Louisiana secured his conviction constitutionally under the Sixth Amendment."
The Sixth Amendment doesn’t explicitly state that jury convictions have to be unanimous. Gorsuch, however, argued that historical context provided evidence that when the Sixth Amendment was enacted, it was that a unanimous jury verdict was required in order to convict someone.
The Sixth Amendment states that “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury…”
Associate Justice Clarence Thomas — a conservative-leaning justice who was appointed by President George H.W. Bush — expressed disagreement with the rationale behind the Court’s decision, but ultimately reached the same conclusion as the majority. He asserted that the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment actually extends legal protections to the states, not the Sixth Amendment.
"I have already rejected our due process incorporation cases as demonstrably erroneous, and I fundamentally disagree with applying that theory of incorporation simply because it reaches the same result in the case before us. Close enough is for horseshoes and hand grenades, not constitutional interpretation. The textual difference between protecting 'citizens' (in the Privileges or Immunities Clause) and 'person[s]' (in the Due Process Clause) will surely be relevant in another case," Thomas wrote.
The Privileges and Immunities Clause basically bars a state from treating citizens of other respective states in a discriminatory or hostile manner.
Justice Samuel Alito filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Elena Kagan and Chief Justice John Roberts joined. He argued that there was no compelling reason to overturn a 1972 Supreme Court ruling that found state court juries did not have to be unanimous.
Alito wrote that the Ramos ruling “imposes a potentially crushing burden on the courts and criminal justice systems” in Oregon and Louisiana.
“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,”read a statement released by the office of Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry in response to the Court’s ruling.
How will this ruling affect the victims of violent crimes who now face conviction reversals in light of this important ruling?
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Article written by Jett James Pruitt