Monday, October 7, 2019
Recall that the issue of which rights in the Bill of Rights are incorporated to the states has received recent attention: in McDonald v. City of Chicago (2010), a 5-4 Court held that the Second Amendment is incorporated as against the states through the Fourteenth Amendment (with four Justices finding this occurred through the Due Process Clause and Justice Thomas stating the proper vehicle was the Privileges or Immunities Clause). And just last Term, in Timbs v. Indiana, the United States Supreme Court unanimously concluded that the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment is applicable to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment.
But embedded in Timbs was a dispute about whether the "right" and the "substance of the right" must be similar, a question that the Court did not address. That dispute is at the heart of the incorporation doctrine surrounding the right to have a unanimous jury verdict. Justice Alito explained the problem in footnote 14 of McDonald, after stating in the text that the general rule is that rights "are all to be enforced against the States under the Fourteenth Amendment according to the same standards that protect those personal rights against federal encroachment.”
There is one exception to this general rule. The Court has held that although the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury requires a unanimous jury verdict in federal criminal trials, it does not require a unanimous jury verdict in state criminal trials. See Apodaca v. Oregon, 406 U. S. 404 (1972).
The precedential value of Apodaca, a case in which the Justices split 4-1-4, was at the center of the oral argument, although at times not as central as might be predicted. The reliance of Louisiana on Apodaca in stare decisis considerations was certainly discussed at length,including the issue of how many inmates would be effected by the Court's ruling. It was unclear how many persons were currently serving sentences under less than unanimous jury verdicts, although petitioner's counsel stated there were currently 36 cases on direct appeal.
However the Solicitor General of Louisiana largely advanced a different argument. She vigorously argued that the Sixth Amendment should not be read to require unanimous jury verdicts at all — whether or not in the context of incorporation. She stated that "nothing in the text, structure, or history of the Sixth Amendment requires unanimous jury verdicts." There seemed to be little support for this construction, although the Justices and opposing counsel did discuss the differences between unanimity and the "12" requirement which the Court has held is not constitutionally required.
There was little indication the Court was likely to revise its Sixth Amendment jurisprudence. And more indication that the Court would continue its trend of incorporating rights in the Bill of Rights as against the states, which would mean overruling Apodaca.