Supreme Court Requires Unanimous Jury Verdicts in Criminal Cases

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · April 21, 2020

Yesterday, in Ramos v. Louisiana, the Supreme Court ruled that the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires a unanimous jury verdict of guilty to convict someone of a serious crime in state court.

The Institute for Justice (IJ), which won a unanimous decision last year in a related case, filed an amicus brief in Ramos urging the Court to overturn Apodaca v. Oregon, a 1972 decision  which permitted non-unanimous verdicts in state court.  For the last 48 years, two states—Oregon and Louisiana—have allowed non-unanimous criminal convictions when as many as two jurors believe the defendant is innocent.

With yesterday’s decision, the Supreme Court has overturned Apodaca and reversed Ramos’s conviction, making the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of a unanimous jury verdict the law in all 50 states. Wesley Hottot, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice who authored the amicus brief, issued the following statement:

“The decision in Ramos follows from the unanimous decision from last term in Timbs v. Indiana. The Supreme Court held in Timbs that state and local governments must comply with the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause when they strip someone of their property using civil forfeiture, without a criminal conviction.  In Ramos, the Court has insisted that state and local governments also comply with the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of a unanimous verdict of guilt when they attempt to convict a person of crime.  Both things have to be true, based on our nation’s history and traditions.”

In its opinion, the Court repudiated the so-called “two-track” approach to applying the Constitution to state laws, which the court had relied on in Apodaca.  Relying on Timbs, Justice Gorsuch’s opinion for the majority reiterates that there is “no daylight” between the meaning of a constitutional right in federal court and its meaning in state court.

Locking horns with a dissent authored by Justice Alito (joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kagan), Gorsuch ends his opinion with a call for judicial engagement regardless of the perceived costs or inconveniences:

“[T]he 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.”

“This decision is a model of judicial engagement,” said Scott Bullock, the president and general counsel of IJ.  “Our constitutional rights depend on the willingness of judges to enforce them.  Courts across the country should follow the Supreme Court’s example in Ramos and never hesitate to follow the Constitution’s commands.”