jury in court

Supreme Court Requires Unanimous Jury Verdicts in Criminal Cases

On Monday, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Ramos v. Louisiana that the Sixth Amendment requires a unanimous jury verdict to convict anyone accused of a serious crime and that this requirement applies to the states.

If you are like most people, you may have thought that this was already the law. In general, that is true. The federal government and 48 states, including Arizona, require that a jury verdict for a criminal case be unanimous. If the jury cannot reach a unanimous decision on a criminal case, the result is a mistrial, and the government will have an opportunity to retry the case.

This common procedure was not the rule in Louisiana and Oregon, however. Both of those states allow for a criminal conviction on a vote of 10-2. This procedure survived a constitutional challenge in an earlier case, Apodaca v. Oregon, a 1972 Supreme Court decision.

Apodaca was a messy split decision. Four justices thought that the Sixth Amendment did not require unanimous juries. Four thought that it did. The deciding vote in the case was cast by Justice Lewis Powell, who split the baby by finding that the Sixth Amendment required unanimity, but that this requirement did not apply to the states. This decision made unanimity a constitutional requirement that would apply to federal court (which already had that requirement), but not one that could be used to change existing state laws that did not have the unanimity requirement.

Ramos gave the Supreme Court a chance to revisit its decision in Apodaca. The Defendant in the case, Evangelisto Ramos, was a Louisiana man who was convicted of fatally stabbing a woman he knew in 2015. The prosecutor failed to produce a murder weapon or any eyewitnesses. The circumstantial evidence that the State’s case rested on was not enough to convince two jurors, who voted against the conviction. Ten jurors voted for the conviction, and Ramos was found guilty under Louisiana’s law and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The Supreme Court reversed the conviction and reaffirmed that a unanimous jury is required by the Sixth Amendment, but it overruled its prior decision in Apodaca by holding that the unanimity requirement also applies to the states.

The Court’s 6–3 decision was written by Justice Gorsuch, over a dissent by Justice Alito that was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kagan. Justices Thomas, Sotomayor, and Kavanaugh all wrote separate opinions offering different reasons for joining the Court’s ruling.

The biggest divide over the Court was over the issue of how to treat Apodaca under the doctrine of stare decisis, the doctrine that says the Court should follow its prior rulings. Each of the five opinions all presented its own perspective on the doctrine. In fact, all the Justices appeared to agree that Apodaca was decided incorrectly and that the Sixth Amendment applied to the States. “No Member of the Court contends that the result in Apodaca is correct,” Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in a concurring opinion. “But the Members of the Court vehemently disagree about whether to overrule Apodaca.”

What we appear to have in Ramos is an interesting shadow war between the Justices. The main issue before them, unanimous jury trials, was not actually controversial. All the Justices were probably left scratching their heads wondering why Louisiana and Oregon would still have the non-unanimous jury requirement.

The real question between them was how to treat a court decision that they disagreed with under the doctrine of stare decisis. With a newly minted conservative majority on the Supreme Court, how this doctrine is treated has a wide range of implications for the fate of legal precedent, most notably Roe v. Wade. It is therefore notable that the dissent was joined by Justices Alito, Roberts, and Kagan—two conservative Justices and a liberal Justice—in support of upholding Apodaca under the doctrine of stare decisis. This unlikely alliance will undoubtedly fuel endless speculation by legal scholars in the months to come as other cases before the Court bring prior precedents under scrutiny.

The case itself, however, has no impact on the current Arizona criminal justice system, which has always required unanimous jury verdicts on felony and misdemeanor cases.