It’s a rule so common, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was law across the U.S.: that in order to be convicted by a jury of your peers, that jury has to unanimously agree on your guilt.
For almost a hundred years, this wasn’t the case in Louisiana, where split decision votes of at least 10-2 could sentence someone to life in prison until the state changed the law last year. Oregon also allowed split-decision convictions on much narrower margins, and until today, it was the only state in the union where this was the case.
On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that state criminal trials must have unanimous jury verdicts to convict offenders of serious crimes. In a 6-3 decision that turned on nuances and technicalities, the high court ruled that the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial requires a unanimous verdict. The decision reverses a previous court decision from 1972, which mandated unanimous verdicts in federal courts but allowed state courts to decide how they wanted convictions to be determined.
Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the majority opinion, joined at various parts by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer and Brett Kavanaugh, reports CNN. Justice Clarence Thomas also joined them in the majority, but agreed with the judgment on much more limited grounds.
“We took this case to decide whether the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial —as incorporated against the States by way of the Fourteenth Amendment— requires a unanimous verdict to convict a defendant of a serious offense,” Gorsuch wrote. “The answer is unmistakable.”
Justices Samuel Alito, Elena Kagan, and John Roberts dissented.
The decision is pretty clear about how serious state criminal cases should proceed going forward; what is less clear is how this affects people currently in prison split-jury convictions in Louisiana and Oregon. Nola.com writes that legal scholars anticipate at least 44 new trials in Louisiana, including one for Evangelisto Ramos, who brought the appeal that went before the Supreme Court. These offenders have yet to exhaust their appeals and thus have a path forward for their cases.
But there are more than 1,000 people locked up on split-jury convictions in the state, and likely hundreds more in Oregon, Nola.com writes.
Louisiana actually threw out split-decision convictions in 2019 via a referendum, which saw voters toss out the 120-year-old verdict law.
Interestingly, in both Louisiana and Oregon, white supremacy appears at the root of preserving the validity of split decisions. From Nola.com:
Louisiana was the first state to break from hundreds of years of Anglo-Saxon legal tradition when it scrapped jury unanimity and endorsed verdicts reached by as few as 9 of 12 jurors. The change was birthed at an openly racist constitutional convention in 1898 that was aimed at disenfranchising black people. Oregon followed suit 36 years later, the result of a populist revolt after a single juror refused to convict of murder a Jewish man accused in the gangland killing of a Protestant.
A 2018 report from the New Orleans Advocate validated what many had long suspected: that split-decision verdicts were particularly harmful in cases where the defendant was black, or when black people served on majority-white juries.
According to the paper’s research, black defendants in Louisiana were 30 percent more likely to be convicted by a split-jury decision. When jurors don’t have to agree on a decision, jury members with strong dissenting opinions are effectively silenced. The Advocate found that in some parishes, this happened more frequently to black jurors, who tend to dissent far more frequently than their white counterparts.
Split-decision convictions, then, worked exactly as lawmakers intended: preserving the rights of white people while disproportionately throwing minorities and non-whites in cages.
Justice Alito pointed out in Monday’s dissenting opinion that Louisiana and Oregon now face “a potential tsunami of litigation” as defendants seek new trials for convictions that weren’t decided unanimously.
But that crush of appeals signifies something valuable—it’s proof of the necessity of today’s ruling. The sheer fact there could be so many people denied a fair and just trial is exactly what made today’s majority opinion so important—and for too many, so overdue.