By Amy Howe
on May 17, 2021
at 2:01 p.m.
The Supreme Court ruled Monday by 6-3 votes that inmates convicted before last year’s Ramos v Louisiana ruling found that the sixth amendment to the Constitution created a right to a unanimous jury to stand before both federal and state courts even before regional courts it cannot be used in the review of federal securities. The geographic impact of Monday’s decision will be limited to Louisiana and Oregon – the only two states that have not allowed unanimous judgments in recent years. The ruling means hundreds of people found guilty before Ramos by non-unanimous juries in these two states will not seek to overturn their beliefs. Monday’s ruling, issued the same day the court announced it would launch a challenge to a Mississippi abortion ban that Roe v. Wade upside down also left the judges split on the issue of respecting their previous precedent.
The controversy over non-unanimous jury judgments goes back nearly 50 years after the 1972 Apodaca v Oregon court ruled that the sixth amendment guarantees a right to a unanimous jury in federal criminal matters, but does not grant that right to defendants trials in the state. The judges were deeply divided when they came to this conclusion: four of them would have ruled that the sixth amendment did not require a unanimous jury at all, while four different judges would have ruled that the sixth amendment guaranteed a right to a unanimous jury in both states and state processes. That left the ninth judiciary, Justice Lewis Powell, to rule on the outcome. He wrote that the sixth amendment protects the right to a unanimous jury for defendants in federal criminal proceedings, but not for defendants in state criminal proceedings.
In 2020, the Ramos Supreme Court overturned its decision in Apodaca by 6-3 votes. In a statement from Judge Neil Gorsuch, the majority stated that when the sixth amendment was passed, there was a long history of the right to unanimous judgment. Gorsuch also stressed that both Louisiana and Oregon imposed the non-unanimous jury rule on racial grounds. However, Ramos’ statement left the question of whether the decision was being applied retrospectively.
The case ruled by Monday’s Edwards v Vannoy court was that of Thedrick Edwards, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole in Louisiana nearly 15 years ago for a range of crimes including armed robbery, rape and Kidnapping. The only black juror in Edwards’ trial voted to acquit Edwards, who is also black, on all counts. Edwards’ conviction became final in 2011.
In a ruling by Judge Brett Kavanaugh, who was joined by the court’s other Conservative justices, the court stated that the Ramos ruling announced a “new rule” because “many courts interpreted Apodaca to avoid unanimous judgments by jury in state criminal cases to enable. “According to the case law of the Supreme Court, Kavanaugh wrote, a ruling establishing a new rule of criminal procedure will generally not apply retrospectively to cases where inmates seek relief after federal condemnation. The court has recognized an exception to this general presumption, Kavanaugh conceded, for rules that are significant enough to approach the level of “watershed” rules. Kavanaugh noted, however, that the court has not found such a rule in the past 32 years and that it is “unlikely” to recognize such a rule in the future.
“Continuing to formulate a theoretical exception that never actually applies in practice,” suggested Kavanaugh, “offers defendants false hope, skews the law, misleads judges and wastes the resources of defense lawyers, prosecutors and the courts.” Kavanaugh concluded that it is “about the time – probably long past – to make it clear what has become more and more obvious for banks and bars over the past 32 years: New procedural rules do not apply retrospectively to the review of collateral by the federal government. “
The court’s decision was sharply rejected by Judge Elena Kagan, who was joined by Judges Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. Kagan suggested that the jury’s unanimity requirement was so clearly a watershed rule that the majority had no choice but to abolish the watershed exception altogether. And it did, Kagan claimed, even though no one asked for it and for no good reason. “The majority,” Kagan concluded, “creeps under, rather than skipping, the bar,” created by the principle that the court should normally respect its previous precedent.
This article was originally published by Howe on the Court.