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  • Writer's pictureDavid A. Cmelik Law PLC

US Supreme Court: 6th Amendment requires unanimous criminal verdicts

juror chairs
6th Amendment requires unanimous jury verdicts

In Ramos v. Louisiana, the United States Supreme Court overturned a non-unanimous criminal jury verdict in Louisiana. It held that unanimous jury verdicts are required by the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution to ensure an impartial jury.

Justice Gorsuch delivered the opinion of the court. Justices Ginsburg and Breyer joined fully and Justice Sotomayor joined mostly. Justice Kavanaugh concurred in the decision but wrote separately. Justice Alito and Chief Justice Roberts dissented.

Justice Gorsuch detailed a racist history to the non-unanimous jury verdict. Delegates to the 1898 Louisiana state constitutional convention specifically proposed it to ensure that the occasional black juror could not deadlock a majority white jury. The Court noted that the United States Senate had, just before this state convention, passed a resolution calling for an investigation into whether Louisiana was systemically excluding black jurors.

Similarly, in Oregon, Justice Gorsuch chronicled that it was the Ku Klux Klan that led the charge to dilute “the influence of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities on Oregon juries.”

The Court went on to say that “not a single member of this court is prepared to say Louisiana secured [Defendant’s] conviction constitutionally under the Sixth Amendment” and “no one before us suggests that error was harmless.” The decision went on to reverse the conviction.

Justice Sotomayor concurred. However, while she joined “most” of the opinion, Justice Sotomayor refused to join Part IV-A in a discussion of precedent, where Justice Gorsuch suggested one powerful reason to overrule precedent in this case was because the decision upholding non-unanimous verdicts was held hostage by a single justice hedging in an unclear opinion in 1972.

In contrast, Justice Sotomayor wrote that the force of precedent is at its “nadir,” or, lowest point, when discussing fundamental constitutional principles in criminal cases—particularly because “the [racist] origins of the Louisiana and Oregon laws uniquely matter here.”

Justice Kavanaugh also joined parts of Justice Gorsuch’s opinion. He distilled the controversy as follows: no member of the court contends that the 1972 Supreme Court decision upholding non-unanimous verdicts is correct. But the Members of the Court “vehemently disagree” about whether to overrule it. He urged the consideration of three factors in deciding to overrule a United States Supreme Court case:

1. First, is the prior decision not just wrong, but grievously or egregiously wrong?

2. Second, has the prior decision caused significant negative jurisprudential or real-world consequences?

3. Third, would overruling the prior decision unduly upset reliance interests?

Justice Kavanaugh found that non-unanimous jury verdicts are grievously wrong, that they cause significant negative real world consequences, and that no one can truly rely on them to their detriment.

Justice Thomas also wrote his own opinion, finding that non-unanimous felony jury verdicts in State courts violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. He rejected a “fresh analysis of the meaning of ‘trial . . . by an impartial jury.’”

Justice Alito wrote a separate concurrence in which Justice Roberts joined and Justice Kagan joined only part. Justice Alito lamented that the majority succumbed to ad hominem attacks by suggesting that Louisiana and Oregon “allow” non-unanimous jury verdicts presumably to continue the racist policy. Instead, Justice Alito noted that Justice Gorsuch's opinion was silent on the 1973 Louisiana constitutional convention that narrowed the rule. The Alito concurrence also asked rhetorically whether British parliament, the American Bar Association, and American Law Institute—all of which have recommended non-unanimous jury verdicts in the past— would be considered “under the sway of the Klan.”

Justice Alito then went on to state that the Louisiana criminal justice system relies on non-unanimous jury verdicts to conduct business and that it will yield a “tsunami of litigation” at a minimum for cases now on direct appeal and at most for cases retroactively.

NOTE: David A. Cmelik Law PLC had no involvement in the Ramos decision

If you or a loved one have been arrested for a criminal offense in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, or other Iowa community, contact us for a free initial consultation.


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