Edwards v. Vannoy (U.S. Supreme Court. May 2021)

The Federal Docket

6th Amendment – The unanimous-jury rule from the Court’s recent decision in Ramos does not apply retroactively on federal collateral review.

Retroactivity – The Teague watershed exception to the rule regarding retroactivity of new procedural rules is “moribund.”

Thedrick Edwards was convicted in Louisiana of five counts of armed robbery, two counts of kidnapping, and one count of rape. Louisiana law at the time of his trial permitted guilty verdicts to stand without the unanimous support of all jurors. In Edwards’s case, the jury voted 11-1 for his guilt on four of his charges and voted 10-2 for his guilt in the remaining four. He was sentenced by the trial court to life without the possibility of parole. Edwards appealed his convictions but lost, and his conviction became final.

On petition for federal habeas corpus, Edwards argued that he had a constitutional right to a unanimous jury verdict. The Middle District of Louisiana rejected this argument, finding it to be foreclosed by the plurality decision in Apodaca v. Oregon, which had said that unanimous verdicts were not required in state criminal trials by the Constitution. The Fifth Circuit refused his appeal, and Edwards petitioned for a writ of certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court. While that petition was pending, the Court decided in Ramos v. Louisiana that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporated the Sixth Amendment right to a unanimous jury to the states as well.

Reviewing the proposed application of this new rule de novo, the Court found that the Ramos rule requiring unanimous verdicts does not apply retroactively on federal collateral review. The Ramos standard is a rule of criminal procedure, and it is considered to be new because it was not dictated by the precedents extant at the time of Edwards’s conviction. Though all such rules apply on direct review, as established in Teague v. Lane, the only new rules of criminal procedure that can be applied retroactively on collateral review are “watershed” rules pertaining to “basic due process.” The Court has only ever found one procedural rule to be such a “watershed”—the right to counsel as expressed in Gideon v. Wainwright—and it has often opined that there were likely no other important aspects of due process rights that have yet to be recognized by the Court. Taking this a step further, the Court asserted that there was nothing that could satisfy the criteria to be a watershed rule, and that the exception given in Teague was thus “moribund” and “retaining no vitality.”

Justice Thomas joined the majority but also wrote a separate concurrence noting that the case could also be resolved on statutory grounds under AEDPA, since Edwards’s conviction did not involve an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law.

Justice Gorsuch also concurred separately, emphasizing in his opinion the nullity of the watershed exception.

Justice Kagan dissented, asserting that the Ramos rule met every criterion for a watershed decision laid out by Teague and delivering a scathing critique of the majority’s decision to abandon the watershed rule entirely when no party had even requested such a change.

On certiorari from the Fifth Circuit
Opinion by Kavanaugh, joined by Roberts, Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, and Barrett
Concurrence by Thomas, joined by Gorsuch
Concurrence by Gorsuch, joined by Thomas
Dissent by Kagan, joined by Breyer and Sotomayor

Click here to read the opinion

Tom Church - Tom is a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on criminal defense and civil trials. Tom is the author of "The Federal Docket" and is a contributor to Mercer Law Review's Annual Survey in the areas of federal sentencing guidelines and criminal law. Tom graduated with honors from the University of Georgia Law School where he served as a research assistant to the faculty in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights litigation. Read Tom's reviews on AVVO. Follow Tom on Linkedin.

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