CHICAGO, June 18, 2019 — The American Bar Association filed an amicus brief today with the U.S. Supreme Court, seeking to declare that the U.S. Constitution requires a unanimous jury verdict in felony criminal cases in all 50 states.
Until this year, only two states — Louisiana and Oregon — allowed split-jury verdicts. Last November, Louisiana voters approved a state constitutional amendment that requires the unanimous agreement of jurors, rather than just 10 of 12 jurors, to convict people charged with felonies. The new rule took effect Jan. 1 and does not apply retroactively.
In its brief, the ABA supported the petition of a Louisiana man, who was convicted in a 10-2 verdict of second-degree murder in 2016. He contends the Constitution’s 14th Amendment incorporates the Sixth Amendment guarantee of a unanimous verdict. In its brief, the ABA noted that the association has “long recognized that a requirement of jury unanimity in criminal cases is fundamental ... and is essential to maintaining public confidence in the criminal justice system.” It also pointed out the empirical research it considered when enacting its 2018 policy supporting an unanimity rule because it “protects dissenting voices in the jury room because it requires that every point of view be considered.”
In 1968, the Supreme Court found that the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial applies to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment, except in cases of very minor crimes. Four years later in Apodaca v Oregon, the justices found that the Sixth Amendment required unanimous juries to convict persons in federal criminal trials, but that the 14th Amendment did not extend that requirement to state criminal trials.
But earlier this year, the justices ruled unanimously that the Eighth Amendment’s excessive fines clause applies to the states under the 14th Amendment’s due process clause. In its brief, the ABA pointed to this ruling in arguing the Supreme Court should overrule the Apodaca decision. The ABA brief noted that while five justices then concluded the Sixth Amendment did not require unanimous jury verdicts in state courts, there was not a clear-cut majority opinion.
“Given the incongruity in Apodaca, it is appropriate for the court to reconsider that decision,” the ABA brief said. “The court, quite rightly, does not often overrule its precedents, but the status of Apodaca as a precedent, other than the bare outcome, is doubtful. In addition, extending well established Sixth Amendment case law to the states would cause little disruption.”
The amicus brief in Ramos v. Louisiana is available here. While the case has been accepted for the term that begins in October, arguments have yet to be scheduled.
With more than 400,000 members, the American Bar Association is one of the largest voluntary professional membership organizations in the world. As the national voice of the legal profession, the ABA works to improve the administration of justice, promotes programs that assist lawyers and judges in their work, accredits law schools, provides continuing legal education, and works to build public understanding around the world of the importance of the