Monday, April 20, 2020
The Court issued its opinion in Ramos v. Louisiana with a majority concluding that the Sixth Amendment confers a right to a unanimous jury verdict that is incorporated against the states through the Fourteenth Amendment.
Recall from the oral argument on the very first day of the 2019-2020 term that almost all rights have now been incorporated through selective incorporation, and that the unanimous jury requirement subject to an exception of the incorporation of the trial by jury clause. As Justice Alito phrased it in an opinion for the Court in McDonald v. City of Chicago (2010) (in which a closely divided Court held that the Second Amendment is incorporated), 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 and is at the center of the Court's fragmented opinions in Ramos. The lone Justice in Apodaca is Justice Powell, who is specifically discussed throughout the opinions. Powell's adoption of what the Court calls the "dual-track" incorporation, and seemingly Justice Powell himself, does he does not fare very well in the Court's opinion, including quoting Powell that he was simply "unwilling to follow the Court's precedents" regarding incorporation.
Writing for the Court, Justice Gorsuch's opinion is joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kavanaugh, but not in full. Indeed, the would-be majority loses Kavanaugh regarding some of its discussions of precedent and stare decisis, and loses both Kavanaugh and Sotomayor regarding a discussion of the specific stare decisis accorded to Apodaca.
The Court clearly concludes, however, that there is a Sixth Amendment right to a unanimous jury verdict and that this right is incorporated as against the states.
Justice Thomas concurs, but renews his argument that the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment is the proper vehicle for incorporation. However, unlike in McDonald, Justice Thomas' vote is not necessary to constitute a majority.
Justice Alito dissented, joined by Chief Justice Roberts, as well as for most of his opinion, by Justice Kagan.
Certainly this case is important for both the constitutional doctrine of incorporation and for constitutional criminal procedure under the Sixth Amendment. But the Justices' various opinions discussing stare decisis might be read to portend larger developments. Justice Kavanaugh's concurring opinion is most explicit in this regard: he outlines his views on stare decisis and supports his conclusion why Apocada should be overruled. Justice Alito's dissenting opinion argued for honoring stare decisis, but interestingly, Justice Kagan does not join that portion of the dissent arguing that the "reliance" in this case "far outstrips" other recently overruled cases.
Two other matters bear notice.
First, the racist roots of the non-unanimous jury verdict requirement is given attention by the Court, highlighted in Justice Sotomayor's concurring opinion, and minimized by the dissenting opinion (arguing that the opinion does not apply only to Louisiana and Oregon, but any future state that might adopt non-unanimous verdicts, even if all the lawmakers were "angels").
Second, there is the rhetoric and tone of some of the opinions. There is an evident conversation between the majority and dissent, with Gorsuch's opinion veering toward a condescending tone punctuated by rhetorical questions and Alito's opinion answering with accusatory and aggrieved notes.
But as a matter of incorporation doctrine, after last Term's Timbs v. Indiana regarding the Eighth Amendment's excessive fines provision, the Court's decision in Ramos now leaves only the Fifth Amendment grand jury requirement and the Seventh Amendment's right to a jury trial in a civil case as the federally applicable rights that are not incorporated as against the states. And then there is that Third Amendment.