The Supreme Court has another interesting (and potentially chaotic) case on their hands and they’re hearing arguments this week. In Ramos v. Louisiana, Evangelisto Ramos was previously convicted of second-degree murder in Louisiana. But the jury that convicted him reached a 10-2 decision rather than a unanimous one. His attorneys argue that the verdict should be thrown out because the Sixth Amendment assumption of a requirement of unanimous decisions should apply. And according to some reporters in attendance, most of the justices seemed inclined to agree. (Associated Press)
The Supreme Court began a potentially contentious election-year term Monday in seeming general agreement that juries in state criminal trials must be unanimous to convict a defendant.
The justices took up a quirk of constitutional law, a 47-year-old ruling that requires unanimity in federal, but not state trials. Earlier in the day, the court also wrestled with whether states must allow criminal defendants to plead insanity.
The one minor surprise when the justices took the bench just after 10 o’clock was the absence of Justice Clarence Thomas. The 71-year-old Thomas was at home, likely with the flu, the court said.
Some of the aspects of this argument are confusing, or at least they were to me. For example, there are constant references in the coverage of this case to the “Sixth Amendment requirement that jury decisions be unanimous.” Of course, if you go and read the Sixth Amendment, it never mentions anything about jury decisions needing to be unanimous. That concept is an interpretation made by the Supreme Court in a variety of cases, most pertinently their 1972 ruling in Apodaca v. Oregon.
In that ruling, the court determined that a unanimous verdict was required in federal trials for serious crimes, but that states had the option to go with a split decision of 11-1 or 10-2. Currently, Washington state is the only state still allowing split decisions. Louisiana did until last year, but it’s still allowed for crimes committed prior to 2019.
If the Supreme Court rules in Ramos’ favor, not only would his conviction be overturned (probably leading to a new trial), but hundreds or even thousands of other cases could be tossed into the dust bin. So we’re obviously dealing with a very impactful decision here.
What arguments are there against requiring unanimous verdicts? While browsing around, I found one essay at Slate arguing that the requirement is racist. (Because of course it is.) You can boil this theory down as follows. Most juries are comprised of mostly white people who are more likely to convict a minority defendant. The majority of defendants are minorities. Therefore, a requirement of a unanimous verdict prevents one or two minority jurors from stopping the conviction by a bunch of white people. Or something like that.
But doesn’t that work both ways? You can mix and match the races of both the defendants and the jurors and find cases that fell apart on an 11-1 or 10-2 vote. In the end, it seems to me that if you’re going to have the requirement at the federal level it should probably apply to the states as well. But we probably won’t learn until next June whether the current court agrees or not.