Any studious 8th grader with basic civics knowledge would recognize the abhorrence and blatant unconstitutionality of non-unanimous jury convictions. Our justice system’s most cherished principle is the presumption of innocence, and any failure by one’s peers to reach a unanimous conclusion of guilt bears the consequence of innocence.
A recent Supreme Court decision only just cemented as much to all defendants across all states.
The court’s opinion in Ramos V Louisianna was handed down on April 20. A 6-3 decision in favor of the petitioner Evangelisto Ramos who, in 2016, was convicted of second-degree murder via a 10-2 jury verdict. In 48 other states, Mr. Ramos would likely have been retried but, since the alleged crime occurred in Louisiana, a 10-2 jury was enough to convict him. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The Court ruled that such convictions are a violation of the Sixth Amendment’s promise of a trial by an impartial jury, a right that extends to all state and federal courts as outlined in the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause.
Louisiana and Oregon, are the only states in the Union where a non-unanimous jury was adequate to convict a criminal defendant. Louisiana instituted this rule via a state constitutional amendment in 1898, but the circumstances surrounding the amendment’s passing were nefarious to say the least. With suspiciously abrupt timing, Louisianna amended its state constitution, allowing 10-2 convictions only a week after the U.S. Senate called for an investigation into Louisianna’s alleged discrimination against African-Americans. The non-unanimity rule was meant to both deflect the discrimination-suspicious eyes of the feds, and to render African-American jury service essentially meaningless. African-American jurors were treated as only pawns in a larger game meant to oppress them in the Jim Crow era.
Ramos V Louisianna is a consequence of, as Justice Kavanaugh put it, an “erroneous precedent” set in Apodaca V Oregon, a similar case concerning non-unanimity argued in 1972. The petitioners were also convicted of serious crimes by a less than unanimous jury and asked the Supreme Court to review the constitutionality undergirding these convictions.
Should the justices in Apodaca have acted in deference to the Constitution, the decision would’ve been understandable. Unfortunately, the majority acted as unelected legislators aiming for a more efficient law enforcement system, not as judges whose primary allegiance is bound to the existing law.
Four justices, in their assessment of the case, reframed the constitutional question at issue in Apodaca to a question of functionalism. In a capriciously myopic fashion, they concluded that the impartial jury mandate in the Sixth Amendment was much too burdensome to reach in “contemporary society” and should not encumber states like Oregon and Louisianna who wish to ignore it. Those four were joined by fifth justice who didn’t believe the Sixth Amendment fully applied to the states. The convictions were upheld in a 5-4 decision.
The practice continued and further exposed itself as the dysfunctional policy that it was. From 1990 to 2017, there were 25 convicts who were later exonerated in Louisianna. 11 of those cases were ones decided by a split jury. That’s 44% of exonerations where the minority vote was correct but not enough to prevent a wrongful conviction.
Justice Gorsuch, author of the majority opinion in Ramos, devotes several pages to condemning the functionalist assessment to constitutional interpretation in Apodaca. Gorsuch explains that if the justices had ruled as they should have, with primary respect to the Constitution and its original meaning without consideration to external policy considerations, Apodaca would have affirmed every defendant’s right to unanimity and a case like Ramos would not need to be decided in 2020.
The term “impartial jury” was ubiquitous long before the founding era. Derived in the American system from English common law, impartial juries were considered among the most vital of criminal rights. Gorsuch cites the 18th century English judge Sir William Blackstone saying, “A ‘verdict, taken from eleven, was no verdict’ at all.”
The law is not that which is convenient, nor that which is wished for. All efforts and pains the nation endures to elect legislators are useless if the law can instead be changed by those tasked with interpreting it. It is not the duty of judges to disregard what they feel is atavistic and irrelevant, but to uphold the laws made by those tasked with making them. Blinding oneself to personal biases and wishes so as to maintain the law is the arduous and often unpopular duty of those on the bench. It takes a special kind of person to do this well. As Antonin Scalia famously quipped, “The judge who always likes the results he reaches is a bad judge.”
Enshrining unanimity and justice for all, Ramos marks a welcome end to an unfortunate precedent.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.