Ramos v. Louisiana (U.S. Supreme Court, April 2020)

The Federal Docket

May 12, 2020

Sixth Amendment/Juries – The Sixth Amendment requires a unanimous jury verdict to convict a defendant of a felony and is incorporated against the states through the Fourteenth amendment.

Evangelisto Ramos was convicted of murder by a vote of 10-2 in Louisiana. He challenged his conviction as violative of the Sixth Amendment’s clause protecting the right to an “impartial jury,” which Ramos argued means a unanimous jury verdict.

Justice Gorsuch, writing for the majority in some parts and a plurality in others, wrote that the Constitution’s text and structure support interpreting “trial by an impartial jury” as requiring a unanimous verdict. A central part of Gorsuch’s opinion addressed the Supreme Court’s prior ruling in Apocada v. Oregon, where the Court upheld Oregon’s less-than-unanimous verdict system based on a lone concurring opinion by Justice Powell asserting that the unanimity requirement applied only to federal prosecutions.

Gorsuch, Ginsburg, and Breyer all agreed that Apocada was not being overturned since Justice Powell was writing alone in his concurrence–while he concurred in the majority’s judgment, which upheld the less-than-unanimous conviction, his opinion was not the majority’s, and there was a 4-4 split on whether the unanimity requirement applied to the states. Justice Gorsuch remarked that it would a “new and dubious proposition…that a single Justice writing only for himself has the authority to bind this Court.” (Justice Jackson and his concurring opinion from Youngstown Sheet may have something to say about this.)

Sotomayor wrote to emphasize the unique wrongness of Apocada, while Kavanaugh agreed that Apocada was wrong and pointedly noted that every member of the Court, at one point or another, had voted to overturn precedents. Kavanaugh also offered a three-factor test for determining when to overturn precedent: 1) is the precedent “grievously or egregiously wrong”; would overturning it have “significant negative jurisprudential or real-world consequences”; and would “overruling the prior decision unduly upset reliance interests.”

Justice Thomas concurred, writing, as always, that incorporation of the right against the states comes through the 14th amendment’s privilege and immunities clause, not its due process clause.

Alito wrote as the lone defender of stare decisis against the “rough treatment” and accused Gorsuch and Co. of “lowering the bar” for overturning binding precedent.

Some commentators have written that the Court’s debate over stare decisis in this opinion is a preview of further arguments that will eventually end up in a challenge to Roe v. Wade.

On certiorari from the Fourth Circuit

Opinion by Gorsuch, joined in full by Ginsburg and Breyer and in part by Sotomayor and Kavanaugh

Concurring opinion by Sotomayor

Concurring opinion by Kavanaugh

Concurring opinion by Thomas

Dissenting opinion by Alito, joined in full by Roberts and in part by Kagan 

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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