SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
EVANGELISTO RAMOS, PETITIONER v. LOUISIANA
[April 20, 2020]
Justice Gorsuch announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II–A, III, and IV–B–1.
Accused of a serious crime, Evangelisto Ramos insisted on his innocence and invoked his right to a jury trial. Eventually, 10 jurors found the evidence against him persuasive. But a pair of jurors believed that the State of Louisiana had failed to prove Mr. Ramos’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt; they voted to acquit.
In 48 States and federal court, a single juror’s vote to acquit is enough to prevent a conviction. But not in Louisiana. Along with Oregon, Louisiana has long punished people based on 10-to-2 verdicts like the one here. So instead of the mistrial he would have received almost anywhere else, Mr. Ramos was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Why do Louisiana and Oregon allow non-unanimous convictions? Though it’s hard to say why these laws persist, their origins are clear. Louisiana first endorsed non-unanimous verdicts for serious crimes at a constitutional convention in 1898. According to one committee chairman, the avowed purpose of that convention was to “establish the supremacy of the white race,” and the resulting document included many of the trappings of the Jim Crow era: a poll tax, a combined literacy and property ownership test, and a grandfather clause that in practice exempted white residents from the most onerous of these requirements.
Nor was it only the prospect of African-Americans voting that concerned the delegates. Just a week before the convention, the U. S. Senate passed a resolution calling for an investigation into whether Louisiana was systemically excluding African-Americans from juries. Seeking to avoid unwanted national attention, and aware that this Court would strike down any policy of overt discrimination against African-American jurors as a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, the delegates sought to undermine African-American participation on juries in another way. With a careful eye on racial demographics, the convention delegates sculpted a “facially race-neutral” rule permitting 10-to-2 verdicts in order “to ensure that African-American juror service would be meaningless.”
Adopted in the 1930s, Oregon’s rule permitting non-unanimous verdicts can be similarly traced to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and efforts to dilute “the influence of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities on Oregon juries.” In fact, no one before us contests any of this; courts in both Louisiana and Oregon have frankly acknowledged that race was a motivating factor in the adoption of their States’ respective non-unanimity rules.
We took this case to decide whether the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial—as incorporated against the States by way of the Fourteenth Amendment—requires a unanimous verdict to convict a defendant of a serious offense. Louisiana insists that this Court has never definitively passed on the question and urges us to find its practice consistent with the Sixth Amendment. By contrast, the dissent doesn’t try to defend Louisiana’s law on Sixth or Fourteenth Amendment grounds; tacitly, it seems to admit that the Constitution forbids States from using non-unanimous juries. Yet, unprompted by Louisiana, the dissent suggests our precedent requires us to rule for the State anyway. What explains all this? To answer the puzzle, it’s necessary to say a bit more about the merits of the question presented, the relevant precedent, and, at last, the consequences that follow from saying what we know to be true.
The Sixth Amendment promises that “[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law.” The Amendment goes on to preserve other rights for criminal defendants but says nothing else about what a “trial by an impartial jury” entails.
Still, the promise of a jury trial surely meant something—otherwise, there would have been no reason to write it down. Nor would it have made any sense to spell out the places from which jurors should be drawn if their powers as jurors could be freely abridged by statute. Imagine a constitution that allowed a “jury trial” to mean nothing but a single person rubberstamping convictions without hearing any evidence—but simultaneously insisting that the lone juror come from a specific judicial district “previously ascertained by law.” And if that’s not enough, imagine a constitution that included the same hollow guarantee twice—not only in the Sixth Amendment, but also in Article III. No: The text and structure of the Constitution clearly suggest that the term “trial by an impartial jury” carried with it some meaning about the content and requirements of a jury trial.
One of these requirements was unanimity. Wherever we might look to determine what the term “trial by an impartial jury trial” meant at the time of the Sixth Amendment’s adoption—whether it’s the common law, state practices in the founding era, or opinions and treatises written soon afterward—the answer is unmistakable. A jury must reach a unanimous verdict in order to convict.
The requirement of juror unanimity emerged in 14th- century England and was soon accepted as a vital right protected by the common law. As Blackstone explained, no person could be found guilty of a serious crime unless “the truth of every accusation . . . should . . . be confirmed by the unanimous suffrage of twelve of his equals and neighbors, indifferently chosen, and superior to all suspicion.” A “‘verdict, taken from eleven, was no verdict’ ” at all.
This same rule applied in the young American States. Six State Constitutions explicitly required unanimity. Another four preserved the right to a jury trial in more general terms.But the variations did not matter much; consistent with the common law, state courts appeared to regard unanimity as an essential feature of the jury trial.
It was against this backdrop that James Madison drafted and the States ratified the Sixth Amendment in 1791. By that time, unanimous verdicts had been required for about 400 years. If the term “trial by an impartial jury” carried any meaning at all, it surely included a requirement as long and widely accepted as unanimity. . .
Nor is this a case where the original public meaning was lost to time and only recently recovered. This Court has, repeatedly and over many years, recognized that the Sixth Amendment requires unanimity. As early as 1898, the Court said that a defendant enjoys a “constitutional right to demand that his liberty should not be taken from him except by the joint action of the court and the unanimous verdict of a jury of twelve persons.” A few decades later, the Court elaborated that the Sixth Amendment affords a right to “a trial by jury as understood and applied at common law, . . . includ[ing] all the essential elements as they were recognized in this country and England when the Constitution was adopted.”And, the Court observed, this includes a requirement “that the verdict should be unanimous.”In all, this Court has commented on the Sixth Amendment’s unanimity requirement no fewer than 13 times over more than 120 years.
There can be no question either that the Sixth Amendment’s unanimity requirement applies to state and federal criminal trials equally. This Court has long explained that the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial is “fundamental to the American scheme of justice” and incorporated against the States under the Fourteenth Amendment. This Court has long explained, too, that incorporated provisions of the Bill of Rights bear the same content when asserted against States as they do when asserted against the federal government. So 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.
How, despite these seemingly straightforward principles, have Louisiana’s and Oregon’s laws managed to hang on for so long? It turns out that the Sixth Amendment’s otherwise simple story took a strange turn in 1972. That year, the Court confronted these States’ unconventional schemes for the first time—in Apodaca v. Oregon and a companion case, Johnson v. Louisiana. Ultimately, the Court could do no more than issue a badly fractured set of opinions. Four dissenting Justices would not have hesitated to strike down the States’ laws, recognizing that the Sixth Amendment requires unanimity and that this guarantee is fully applicable against the States under the Fourteenth Amendment. But a four-Justice plurality took a very different view of the Sixth Amendment. These Justices declared that the real question before them was whether unanimity serves an important “function” in “contemporary society.” Then, having reframed the question, the plurality wasted few words before concluding that unanimity’s costs outweigh its benefits in the modern era, so the Sixth Amendment should not stand in the way of Louisiana or Oregon.
The ninth Member of the Court adopted a position that was neither here nor there. On the one hand, Justice Powell agreed that, as a matter of “history and precedent, . . . the Sixth Amendment requires a unanimous jury verdict to convict.”But, on the other hand, he argued that the Fourteenth Amendment does not render this guarantee against the federal government fully applicable against the States. In this way, Justice Powell doubled down on his belief in “dual-track” incorporation—the idea that a single right can mean two different things depending on whether it is being invoked against the federal or a state government.
Justice Powell acknowledged that his argument for dual-track incorporation came “late in the day.” Late it was. The Court had already, nearly a decade earlier, “rejected the notion that the Fourteenth Amendment applies to the States only a ‘watered-down, subjective version of the individual guarantees of the Bill of Rights.’ ”It’s a point we’ve restated many times since, too, including as recently as last year. Still, Justice Powell frankly explained, he was “unwillin[g]” to follow the Court’s precedents. So he offered up the essential fifth vote to uphold Mr. Apodaca’s conviction—if based only on a view of the Fourteenth Amendment that he knew was (and remains) foreclosed by precedent.
In the years following Apodaca, both Louisiana and Oregon chose to continue allowing nonunanimous verdicts. But their practices have always stood on shaky ground. After all, while Justice Powell’s vote secured a favorable judgment for the States in Apodaca, it’s never been clear what rationale could support a similar result in future cases. Only two possibilities exist: Either the Sixth Amendment allows nonunanimous verdicts, or the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of a jury trial applies with less force to the States under the Fourteenth Amendment. Yet, as we’ve seen, both bear their problems. In Apodaca itself, a majority of Justices—including Justice Powell—recognized that the Sixth Amendment demands unanimity, just as our cases have long said. And this Court’s precedents, both then and now, prevent the Court from applying the Sixth Amendment to the States in some mutated and diminished form under the Fourteenth Amendment. So what could we possibly describe as the “holding” of Apodaca?
Really, no one has found a way to make sense of it. In later cases, this Court has labeled Apodaca an “exception,” “unusual,” and in any event “not an endorsement” of Justice Powell’s view of incorporation. At the same time, we have continued to recognize the historical need for unanimity. We’ve been studiously ambiguous, even inconsistent, about what Apodaca might mean. To its credit, Louisiana acknowledges the problem. The State expressly tells us it is not “asking the Court to accord Justice Powell’s solo opinion in Apodaca precedential force.” Instead, in an effort to win today’s case, Louisiana embraces the idea that everything is up for grabs. It contends that this Court has never definitively ruled on the propriety of non-unanimous juries under the Sixth Amendment—and that we should use this case to hold for the first time that non-unanimous juries are permissible in state and federal courts alike.
Louisiana’s approach may not be quite as tough as trying to defend Justice Powell’s dual-track theory of incorporation, but it’s pretty close. How does the State deal with the fact this Court has said 13 times over 120 years that the Sixth Amendment does require unanimity? Or the fact that five Justices in Apodaca said the same? The best the State can offer is to suggest that all these statements came in dicta. But even supposing (without granting) that Louisiana is right and it’s dicta all the way down, why would the Court now walk away from many of its own statements about the Constitution’s meaning? And what about the prior 400 years of English and American cases requiring unanimity—should we dismiss all those as dicta too?
Sensibly, Louisiana doesn’t dispute that the common law required unanimity. Instead, it argues that the drafting history of the Sixth Amendment reveals an intent by the framers to leave this particular feature behind. The State points to the fact that Madison’s proposal for the Sixth Amendment originally read: “The trial of all crimes . . . shall be by an impartial jury of freeholders of the vicinage, with the requisite of unanimity for conviction, of the right of challenge, and other accustomed requisites. . . .”Louisiana notes that the House of Representatives approved this text with minor modifications. Yet, the State stresses, the Senate replaced “impartial jury of freeholders of the vicinage” with “impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed” and also removed the explicit references to unanimity, the right of challenge, and “other accustomed requisites.” In light of these revisions, Louisiana would have us infer an intent to abandon the common law’s traditional unanimity requirement.
But this snippet of drafting history could just as easily support the opposite inference. Maybe the Senate deleted the language about unanimity, the right of challenge, and “other accustomed prerequisites” because all this was so plainly included in the promise of a “trial by an impartial jury” that Senators considered the language surplusage. The truth is that we have little contemporaneous evidence shedding light on why the Senate acted as it did. So rather than dwelling on text left on the cutting room floor, we are much better served by interpreting the language Congress retained and the States ratified. And, as we’ve seen, at the time of the Amendment’s adoption, the right to a jury trial meant a trial in which the jury renders a unanimous verdict. . .
Faced with this hard fact, Louisiana’s only remaining option is to invite us to distinguish between the historic features of common law jury trials that (we think) serve “important enough” functions to migrate silently into the Sixth Amendment and those that don’t. And, on the State’s account, we should conclude that unanimity isn’t worthy enough to make the trip.
But to see the dangers of Louisiana’s overwise approach, there’s no need to look any further than Apodaca itself. There, four Justices, pursuing the functionalist approach Louisiana espouses, began by describing the “‘essential’ ” benefit of a jury trial as “‘the interposition . . . of the commonsense judgment of a group of laymen’ ” between the defendant and the possibility of an “‘overzealous prosecutor.’ ” And measured against that muddy yardstick, they quickly concluded that requiring 12 rather than 10 votes to convict offers no meaningful improvement. Meanwhile, these Justices argued, States have good and important reasons for dispensing with unanimity, such as seeking to reduce the rate of hung juries.
Who can profess confidence in a breezy cost-benefit analysis like that? Lost in the accounting are the racially discriminatory reasons that Louisiana and Oregon adopted their peculiar rules in the first place. What’s more, the plurality never explained why the promised benefit of abandoning unanimity—reducing the rate of hung juries—always scores as a credit, not a cost. But who can say whether any particular hung jury is a waste, rather than an example of a jury doing exactly what the plurality said it should—deliberating carefully and safeguarding against overzealous prosecutions? And what about the fact, too, that some studies suggest that the elimination of unanimity has only a small effect on the rate of hung juries? Or the fact that others profess to have found that requiring unanimity may provide other possible benefits, including more open-minded and more thorough deliberations? It seems the Apodaca plurality never even conceived of such possibilities.
Our real objection here isn’t that the Apodaca plurality’s cost-benefit analysis was too skimpy. The deeper problem is that the plurality subjected the ancient guarantee of a unanimous jury verdict to its own functionalist assessment in the first place. And Louisiana asks us to repeat the error today, just replacing Apodaca’s functionalist assessment with our own updated version. All this overlooks the fact that, at the time of the Sixth Amendment’s adoption, the right to trial by jury included a right to a unanimous verdict. When the American people chose to enshrine that right in the Constitution, they weren’t suggesting fruitful topics for future cost-benefit analyses. They were seeking to ensure that their children’s children would enjoy the same hard-won liberty they enjoyed. As judges, it is not our role to reassess whether the right to a unanimous jury is “important enough” to retain. With humility, we must accept that this right may serve purposes evading our current notice. We are entrusted to preserve and protect that liberty, not balance it away aided by no more than social statistics. . .
On what ground would anyone have us leave Mr. Ramos in prison for the rest of his life? Not a single Member of this Court is prepared to say Louisiana secured his conviction constitutionally under the Sixth Amendment. No one before us suggests that the error was harmless. Louisiana does not claim precedent commands an affirmance. In the end, the best anyone can seem to muster against Mr. Ramos is that, if we dared to admit in his case what we all know to be true about the Sixth Amendment, we might have to say the same in some others. But where is the justice in that? Every judge must learn to live with the fact he or she will make some mistakes; it comes with the territory. But it is something else entirely to perpetuate something we all know to be wrong only because we fear the consequences of being right. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed.