SCOTUS Rules That Sixth Amendment Requires Unanimous Jury Verdicts For Criminal Convictions In Federal And State Courts

Vinson & Elkins LLP

Vinson & Elkins LLP

On April 20, 2020, the Supreme Court issued an opinion in Ramos v. Louisiana, ruling that the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution requires unanimous jury verdicts for a conviction in a criminal case. In a split decision, the Court ruled this requirement is fully incorporated against the states by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Respondent Evangelisto Ramos was charged with murder in a Louisiana state court, and was convicted by a jury verdict where ten jurors voted guilty, but two voted to acquit. At the time, only Louisiana and Oregon allowed guilty verdicts to be non-unanimous; the remaining forty-eight states and all federal courts required unanimous verdicts. The discrepancy between federal and state court rules was previously challenged, but upheld in a 1972 case called Apodaca v. Oregon. Apodaca had no majority opinion and allowed state courts to use non-unanimous jury verdicts in criminal cases, while ruling that the Sixth Amendment prevented federal courts from doing so.

Ramos, in an opinion authored by Justice Gorsuch, held that the Sixth Amendment’s requirement of a trial “by an impartial jury” included the right to a unanimous jury verdict in criminal cases, and that the Fourteenth Amendment had fully incorporated that right against the states. Justice Gorsuch noted that Louisiana and Oregon’s laws waiving unanimous jury verdicts were actually a fairly recent invention, passed after the Civil War in an attempt to nullify African American jurors’ votes and otherwise undermine minority participation in the judicial process. Unanimous guilty verdicts, on the other hand, could be traced back to Fourteenth Century English common law, and would have been widely accepted by the founders.

Further, since there was no majority opinion in Apodaca, and it was premised on a since-discredited judicial theory that incorporated rights could be treated differently by the states and the federal government, Justice Gorsuch wrote that overruling Apodaca did not offend stare decisis. On this point, Justice Alito wrote a dissent joined by Justice Kagan and Chief Justice Roberts. These discussions on stare decisis, as well as those voiced in concurrences filed by Justices Sotomayor and Kavanaugh, may impact future SCOTUS decisions more than the actual holding of Ramos.

Though it took a circuitous path, over a number of years, the question is now settled: in a criminal jury trial, a conviction requires a unanimous verdict in every American court.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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