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Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Ramos v. Louisiana: Do the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments Require Unanimous Jury Verdicts?

In Ramos v. Louisiana, the United States Supreme Court will decide whether the Sixth Amendment requires unanimous jury verdicts. Specifically, in Ramos, by a vote of 10-2, a jury in state court convicted the defendant of murder. Currently, in criminal cases, only Oregon and Louisiana permit criminal convictions where the jury is non-unanimous. In both jurisdictions, a vote of 10-2 is sufficient to convict a defendant.[1]

The answer to the question presented in Ramos depends in substantial part on the text and purpose of the Sixth Amendment, relevant legal doctrine, and the Court’s precedent.

By way of background, the Sixth Amendment provides in relevant part that “[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a … public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed.”[2] Additionally, under the incorporation doctrine, the Court has held that the Sixth Amendment’s right to a trial by an impartial jury, like most provisions in the Bill of Rights, applies to the states.[3]

Over the last several decades, the Court has clarified the nature and scope of the Sixth Amendment’s jury requirement. In Williams v. Florida, for example, the Court held that the Sixth Amendment permits six-member juries in criminal cases.[4] Subsequently, in Ballew v. Georgia, the Court held that juries cannot consist of less than six jurors.[5] Perhaps most importantly, in Apodaca v. Oregon, the Court held that, while the Sixth Amendment requires unanimous jury verdicts in federal cases, it does not require unanimous jury verdicts in state cases.[6] The Court’s decision in Apodaca is arguably anomalous because, when a provision in the Bill of Rights is incorporated against the states, the general rule is that the standards established at the federal level (e.g., unanimous jury verdicts) also apply to the states. In Ramos, the Court will confront this issue – and the continuing validity of Apodaca – when deciding whether jury verdicts at the state level must be unanimous.

Several considerations will be relevant to the Court’s decisions. Advocates of a unanimous jury requirement will likely argue that the Founders expected – and the English common law demonstrated – that the Sixth Amendment’s right to impartial jury encompassed a unanimity requirement. Additionally, relying on the historical record, advocates may assert that racial animus motivated Louisiana’s and Oregon’s adoption of a non-unanimous jury requirement.[7]

Conversely, opponents of a unanimous jury requirement may argue that the Sixth Amendment’s text is silent regarding the issue of unanimous jury verdicts, thus leaving this determination to the states. Furthermore, principles of stare decisis support upholding Apodaca and thus giving states the authority to determine whether to adopt a unanimity requirement for jury verdicts.

The Court’s decision is difficult to predict. On one hand, the Court may be sensitive to the argument that non-unanimous jury verdicts silence the voices of dissenting jurors and result in fundamentally unfair convictions, particularly against traditionally marginalized groups. Also, the Court may determine that a unanimity requirement is essential to ensuring the right to a fair trial. Indeed, empirical evidence has demonstrated that such a requirement “strengthens deliberations, ensures more accurate outcomes, fosters greater consideration of minority viewpoints, and boosts confidence in verdicts and the justice system.”[8]

On the other hand, the Court may be reluctant, under the doctrine of stare decisis, to overturn Apodaca, particularly because at least two states have relied on Apodaca to adopt laws permitting non-unanimous jury verdicts. Moreover, the Court may be concerned regarding the implications of adopting a categorical rule requiring unanimous jury verdicts in criminal cases (at least for felonies). For example, what if a state decides to increase the number of jurors from twelve to eighteen? Would a vote of 17-1 in favor of a conviction violate the Sixth Amendment? What if a state law provided that a non-unanimous jury verdict of 11-1 was sufficient to convict a defendant? The Court will likely have to address these and other questions when deciding this case.

Ultimately, Ramos will likely be decided by a 5-4 or 6-3 margin and based on oral argument, it appears that the Court is leaning toward interpreting the Sixth Amendment to require unanimous jury verdicts.

 

[1] Robert Black, Ramos v. Louisiana: Does the 14th Amendment Require Unanimous Jury Verdicts? (Oct. 9, 2019) available at: https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/ramos-v-louisiana-does-the-14th-amendment-require-unanimous-jury-verdicts.

[2] U.S. Const., Amend. VI.

[3] See Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145 (1968).

[4] 399 U.S. 78 (1970).

[5] 435 U.S. 223 (1978).

[6] 406 U.S. 404 (1972).

[7] Black, supra note 1, available at: https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/ramos-v-louisiana-does-the-14th-amendment-require-unanimous-jury-verdicts

[8] Constitutional Accountability Center, Ramos v. Louisiana, available at: https://www.theusconstitution.org/litigation/ramos-v-louisiana/.

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