Ramos v. Louisiana: Supreme Court Makes Landmark Ruling
April 26, 2020
Sometimes persuading just one person to accept your point of view can be difficult. Your wife wants the serenity of a beach vacation but you want the excitement of New York City. She wants to see a romantic comedy at the cineplex, but you want to see the latest installment of “Mission Impossible.”
The challenge can be even more daunting when you’re required to persuade twelve people instead of just one. But in that circumstance, it should be difficult, at least according to the United States Supreme Court.
The Importance of Unanimous Verdicts
The Court recently underscored the importance of unanimous verdicts in criminal trials. Specifically, in Ramos v. Louisiana the Court ruled that all jury verdicts in felony state court proceedings must be unanimous. Up until this decision, both Louisiana and Oregon had allowed convictions to stand (at trial and on appeal) based on a 10-2 (or 11-1) verdict.
Louisiana and Oregon are anomalies in the American criminal justice system since all 48 states and the federal government require unanimity (meaning a 12-0 vote) in felony trial proceedings. How could this aberration have continued for so long, especially when the Sixth amendment, requires that in “all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury . . .” We’ll get to that in minute, but let’s first examine how the case wound up on the steps of the Supreme Court.
Thanksgiving Morning of 2014
On Thanksgiving morning of 2014 the body of Trenice Fedison was found in a trash can in New Orleans. Evidence showed that Fedison had been murdered and had likely been sexually assaulted beforehand. The evidence led to Evangelisto Ramos as the culprit who was then arrested and brought to trial.
Ultimately, a 12-member jury convicted Ramos on a 10-2 count. Ramos appealed to the Louisiana Court of Appeal on the ground that his conviction ran afoul of the unanimity provision of the Sixth Amendment, but that state appellate court affirmed his conviction. The Supreme Court granted certiorari. Meaning, the Supreme Court decided to listen to Ramos’ appeal and decide whether the state court had made a mistake.
Surprisingly, there is no language in the Sixth Amendment that requires criminal verdicts to be unanimous. So how did this rule come about? That is where our analysis begins. Any first-year law student can tell you that the jury verdict in a criminal case must be unanimous. But although that concept is regarded as a staple of American criminal justice it can be found nowhere in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights.
As already noted, the Sixth Amendment does require a: 1) speedy; 2) public trial; 3) by an impartial jury. As the Supreme Court explained in the Ramos decision, that unanimity dates back to the common law of fourteenth century England, citing William Blackstone for the proposition that conviction for a crime could only be “confirmed by the unanimous legal precepts suffrage of twelve of his equals and neighbors.”
Thus, like so many other principles of the modern era, the concept of unanimity traces its origins to the common law. But simply because unanimity cannot be traced to a discrete rule in modern or ancient history doesn’t mean that it lacks purpose and moral suasion in its application.
In other words, there are good reasons to embrace the concept of unanimity even if we can’t pinpoint a specific time and place in history and say, “there, that’s where it all began.” Specifically, freedom of the individual from governmental intrusion, interference and, especially, corporeal restraint was as much a paramount concern in the feudal era as it is today. Perhaps even more so then, because kings pretty much had absolute reign over their kingdoms.
King David in the Old Testament
Recall the Old Testament story of King David who, while one day standing on the roof of his palace, was enthralled by the view of a very beautiful, a very naked and a very married Bathsheba bathing on the deck of the adjoining castle. Acting with forethought David collaborated with his army generals to put Bathsheba’s husband on the front lines to, inevitably, be killed so he could then swoop in to cuckold the grieving widow. As far as we know from biblical history, King David was never indicted for conspiracy to commit murder.
Okay, admittedly, I digress. But the example does address a fundamental concern for a democratic republic: the importance of imposing some level of restraint on the overwhelming power of governmental authority; be it a king, a President or, by extension, as the Ramos decision puts it, “an overzealous prosecutor.”
A unanimous jury verdict forms an added layer of protection between the accused and conviction. Why? Because as noted above it is hard enough to gain a consensus of ten people about a certain thing (e.g., guilt), much less two more.
Common Law v. Constitutional
The Supreme Court seems to have first transitioned the common law tradition of a unanimous verdict to a constitutional imperative in the 18th century case of Thompson v. Utah. Since then, the Court has re-affirmed the right to a unanimous verdict of guilt no less than thirteen times.
However, if unanimity has been such a bedrock principle in American criminal jurisprudence for over a century, how were Louisiana and Oregon able to flout the rule of law for so long?
As it turns it out, that question formed the basis of an uncharacteristically vituperative disagreement between the Justices of the Supreme Court deciding the Ramos case.
The majority of Justices asserted that unanimous verdicts of guilt have been a cornerstone of trial due process since before ratification of the Constitution. (For example, they described how, even before ratification of the United States Constitution, virtually all of the “young states” had unanimity provisions in their respective constitutions.
Apodaca v. Oregon
In deciding Ramos, the Justices identified the 1972 case of Apodaca v. Oregon as being the sole wrinkle in a smooth timeline that had validated unanimous verdicts for hundreds of years. Factually, Apodaca was similar to Ramos in that Oregon had tried and convicted two defendants based upon non-unanimous jury verdicts, which was then affirmed by the Supreme Court of Oregon.
When that case then reached the United States Supreme Court, the Justices deciding the Apodaca case were sharply divided with the majority ruling that the right to a jury trial was an indispensable component of a fair trial dating back to the common law.
On the other hand, a four-member block of dissenting Justices questioned the need for unanimous verdicts in a “contemporary society.” A concurring Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr., tipped the scales in favor of the dissenting Justices when he acknowledged the vaunted status of the unanimous verdict, but challenged whether the Fourteenth Amendment made the unanimity requirement applicable to the states. In so doing, Powell formed a plurality with the dissenters, affirming the conviction of both Apodaca defendants.
The Ramos majority lambasted Apodaca as wrongly-decided in light of the long-standing precedent, dating back to the common law, that designated unanimity as an inherent “vital right.” Although the Ramos dissenters acknowledged the sanctity of the Sixth amendment, they argued that the doctrine of stare decisis compelled the Court to follow the holding in Apodaca.
Discarding the dissenters stare decisis argument as of secondary importance in the face of honoring the long-held constitutional imperative requiring due process afforded by unanimous verdicts, the majority of Justices in the Ramos case reaffirmed the notion that when it comes to the state divesting a citizen of his personal liberty (or even worst), prosecuting ishard . . . and it should be.
So, the law of the land has been clarified by the Ramos ruling to require that, in order for a person to be convicted of a felony offense in federal or state court, a jury must decide unanimously.
Michael Humphreys has spent more than 25 years with the United States Department of Justice as a federal prosecutor, including approximately 10 years in Washington, D.C., handling cases all over the United States. Up until the end of 2018, he was a federal prosecutor with the United States Attorney’s Office in Las Vegas. An attorney with a very broad range of criminal and civil experience, Michael is no stranger to the courtroom having been involved with high-stakes federal litigation. If you need powerhouse lawyers for your federal case, get Michael on your side. Michael handles federal criminal and civil matters across the United States.