U.S. Supreme Court

In Gorsuch opinion, Supreme Court rules unanimous verdict is needed to convict

  • Print

jury box

Image from Shutterstock.com.

A unanimous verdict is needed to convict a defendant of a serious criminal offense, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday.

Two of President Donald Trump’s appointees—Justices Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh—were in the majority. Gorsuch wrote the opinion for the court, although some justices who formed the majority on the Sixth Amendment issue didn’t join parts of his opinion.

The right to a unanimous jury is guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment as applied to the states by the 14th Amendment, Gorsuch said. The decision overruled Apodaca v. Oregon, a 1972 plurality decision that declined to extend to the states the right to unanimous verdicts in federal criminal trials.

The defendant in the new case, Evangelisto Ramos, was convicted of second-degree murder in Louisiana state court in 2016 by a 10-2 vote. Louisiana voters later amended the state constitution to bar nonunanimous verdicts, but the change did not apply retroactively. Oregon is the only other state to allow nonunanimous verdicts.

The ABA had filed an amicus brief arguing that the Supreme Court should extend the Sixth Amendment right to a unanimous jury to the states.

Gorsuch said the issue before the Supreme Court was whether unanimity was required to convict a defendant of a serious offense. In a footnote, he noted that a defendant can be tried for some “petty offenses” without a jury.

Gorsuch said the requirement for unanimity emerged as a common law right in 14th-century England. By the time that James Madison drafted and the states ratified the Sixth Amendment in 1791, unanimity had been required for about 400 years, Gorsuch said.

“If the Sixth Amendment’s right to a jury trial requires a unanimous verdict to support a conviction in federal court, it requires no less in state court,” Gorsuch wrote in a section of his opinion joined by Kavanaugh, as well as Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.

Justice Clarence Thomas concurred in the judgment but would use a different analysis to find a Sixth Amendment right to unanimous juries in felony cases.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. dissented, joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and partly joined by Justice Elena Kagan.

“Lowering the bar for overruling our precedents, a badly fractured majority casts aside an important and long-established decision with little regard for the enormous reliance the decision has engendered,” Alito wrote. “If the majority’s approach is not just a way to dispose of this one case, the decision marks an important turn.”

The case is Ramos v. Louisiana.

Hat tip to SCOTUSblog.

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.