Ramos v. Louisiana

591 U.S. ___ (2020)

Case Year: 2020

Case Ruling: 6-3, Reversed

Opinion Justice: Gorsuch

More Information

Concurring Opinions

Dissenting Opinions

Court Opinion Joiner(s):

Breyer, Ginsburg, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, Kagan, Sotomayor


1st Concurring Opinion

Author: Kavanaugh


1st Dissenting Opinion

Author: Alito


2nd Concurring Opinion

Author: Sotomayor


2nd Dissenting Opinion



3rd Concurring Opinion



3rd Dissenting Opinion



Other Concurring Opinions:


JUSTICE GORSUCH announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court…

Accused of a serious crime, Evangelisto Ramos insisted on his innocence and invoked his right to a jury trial. Eventually, 10 jurors found the evidence against him persuasive. But a pair of jurors believed that the State of Louisiana had failed to prove Mr. Ramos’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt; they voted to acquit.

In 48 States and federal court, a single juror’s vote to acquit is enough to prevent a conviction. But not in Louisiana. Along with Oregon, Louisiana has long punished people based on 10-to-2 verdicts like the one here. So instead of the mistrial he would have received almost anywhere else, Mr. Ramos was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Why do Louisiana and Oregon allow nonunanimous convictions? Though it’s hard to say why these laws persist, their origins are clear. Louisiana first endorsed nonunanimous verdicts for serious crimes at a constitutional convention in 1898. According to one committee chairman, the avowed purpose of that convention was to “establish the supremacy of the white race,” and the resulting document included many of the trappings of the Jim Crow era: a poll tax, a combined literacy and property ownership test, and a grandfather clause that in practice exempted white residents from the most onerous of these requirements.

Nor was it only the prospect of African-Americans voting that concerned the delegates. Just a week before the convention, the U. S. Senate passed a resolution calling for an investigation into whether Louisiana was systemically excluding African-Americans from juries. Seeking to avoid unwanted national attention, and aware that this Court would strike down any policy of overt discrimination against African-American jurors as a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, the delegates sought to undermine African-American participation on juries in another way. With a careful eye on racial demographics, the convention delegates sculpted a “facially race-neutral” rule permitting 10-to-2 verdicts in order “to ensure that African-American juror service would be meaningless.”

Adopted in the 1930s, Oregon’s rule permitting nonunanimous verdicts can be similarly traced to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and efforts to dilute “the influence of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities on Oregon juries.”   In fact, no one before us contests any of this; courts in both Louisiana and Oregon have frankly acknowledged that race was a motivating factor in the adoption of their States’ respective nonunanimity rules.

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. Louisiana insists that this Court has never definitively passed on the question and urges us to find its practice consistent with the Sixth Amendment…

The Sixth Amendment promises that “[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law.” The Amendment goes on to preserve other rights for criminal defendants but says nothing else about what a “trial by an impartial jury” entails.

Still, the promise of a jury trial surely meant something—otherwise, there would have been no reason to write it down… The text and structure of the Constitution clearly suggest that the term “trial by an impartial jury” carried with it some meaning about the content and requirements of a jury trial.

One of these requirements was unanimity. Wherever we might look to determine what the term “trial by an impartial jury trial” meant at the time of the Sixth Amendment’s adoption—whether it’s the common law, state practices in the founding era, or opinions and treatises written soon afterward—the answer is unmistakable. A jury must reach a unanimous verdict in order to convict.

The requirement of juror unanimity emerged in 14th- century England and was soon accepted as a vital right protected by the common law. As Blackstone explained, no person could be found guilty of a serious crime unless “the truth of every accusation . . . should . . . be confirmed by the unanimous suffrage of twelve of his equals and neighbors, indifferently chosen, and superior to all suspicion.” A “‘verdict, taken from eleven, was no verdict’” at all.

This same rule applied in the young American States. Six State Constitutions explicitly required unanimity. Another four preserved the right to a jury trial in more general terms. But the variations did not matter much; consistent with the common law, state courts appeared to regard unanimity as an essential feature of the jury trial.

It was against this backdrop that James Madison drafted and the States ratified the Sixth Amendment in 1791. By that time, unanimous verdicts had been required for about 400 years. If the term “trial by an impartial jury” carried any meaning at all, it surely included a requirement as long and widely accepted as unanimity…

Nor is this a case where the original public meaning was lost to time and only recently recovered. This Court has, repeatedly and over many years, recognized that the Sixth Amendment requires unanimity. As early as 1898, the Court said that a defendant enjoys a “constitutional right to demand that his liberty should not be taken from him except by the joint action of the court and the unanimous verdict of a jury of twelve persons” [Thompson v. Utah (1898). ]… In all, this Court has commented on the Sixth Amendment’s unanimity requirement no fewer than 13 times over more than 120 years.

There can be no question either that the Sixth Amendment’s unanimity requirement applies to state and federal criminal trials equally. This Court has long explained that the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial is “fundamental to the American scheme of justice” and incorporated against the States under the Fourteenth Amendment. This Court has long explained, too, that incorporated provisions of the Bill of Rights bear the same content when asserted against States as they do when asserted against the federal government. So if the Sixth Amendment’s right to a jury trial requires a unanimous verdict to support a conviction in federal court, it requires no less in state court.

How, despite these seemingly straightforward principles, have Louisiana’s and Oregon’s laws managed to hang on for so long? It turns out that the Sixth Amendment’s otherwise simple story took a strange turn in 1972. That year, the Court confronted these States’ unconventional schemes for the first time—in Apodaca v. Oregon and a companion case, Johnson v. Louisiana. Ultimately, the Court could do no more than issue a badly fractured set of opinions. Four dissenting Justices would not have hesitated to strike down the States’ laws, recognizing that the Sixth Amendment requires unanimity and that this guarantee is fully applicable against the States under the Fourteenth Amendment.  But a four-Justice plurality took a very different view of the Sixth Amendment. These Justices declared that the real question before them was whether unanimity serves an important “function” in “contemporary society.” Then, having reframed the question, the plurality wasted few words before concluding that unanimity’s costs out-weigh its benefits in the modern era, so the Sixth Amendment should not stand in the way of Louisiana or Oregon.

The ninth Member of the Court adopted a position that was neither here nor there. On the one hand, Justice Powell agreed that, as a matter of “history and precedent, . . . the Sixth Amendment requires a unanimous jury verdict to convict.” But, on the other hand, he argued that the Fourteenth Amendment does not render this guarantee against the federal government fully applicable against the States. In this way, Justice Powell doubled down on his belief in “dual-track” incorporation—the idea that a single right can mean two different things depending on whether it is being invoked against the federal or a state government….

So what could we possibly describe as the “holding” of Apodaca?

Really, no one has found a way to make sense of it. In later cases, this Court has labeled Apodaca an “exception,” “unusual,” and in any event “not an endorsement” of Justice Powell’s view of incorporation. At the same time, we have continued to recognize the historical need for unanimity. We’ve been studiously ambiguous, even inconsistent, about what Apodaca might mean. To its credit, Louisiana acknowledges the problem. The State expressly tells us it is not “asking the Court to accord Justice Powell’s solo opinion in Apodaca precedential force.” Instead, in an effort to win today’s case, Louisiana embraces the idea that everything is up for grabs. It contends that this Court has never definitively ruled on the propriety of nonunanimous juries under the Sixth Amendment—and that we should use this case to hold for the first time that nonunanimous juries are permissible in state and federal courts alike.

Louisiana’s approach may not be quite as tough as trying to defend Justice Powell’s dual-track theory of incorporation, but it’s pretty close. How does the State deal with the fact this Court has said 13 times over 120 years that the Sixth Amendment does require unanimity? Or the fact that five Justices in Apodaca said the same? The best the State can offer is to suggest that all these statements came in dicta. But even supposing (without granting) that Louisiana is right and it’s dicta all the way down, why would the Court now walk away from many of its own statements about the Constitution’s meaning? And what about the prior 400 years of English and American cases requiring unanimity—should we dismiss all those as dicta too?

But to see the dangers of Louisiana’s…approach, there’s no need to look any further than Apodaca itself. There, four Justices… argued, States have good and important reasons for dispensing with unanimity, such as seeking to reduce the rate of hung juries.

Who can  profess  confidence  in  a  breezy  cost-benefit analysis like that? Lost in the accounting are the racially discriminatory reasons that Louisiana and Oregon adopted their peculiar rules in the first place. What’s more, the plurality never explained why the promised benefit of abandoning unanimity—reducing the rate of hung juries—always scores as a credit, not a cost. But who can say whether any particular hung jury is a waste, rather than an example of a jury doing exactly what the plurality said it should— deliberating carefully and safeguarding against overzealous prosecutions? And what about the fact, too, that some studies suggest that the elimination of unanimity has only a small effect on the rate of hung juries? Or the fact that others profess to have found that requiring unanimity may provide other possible benefits, including more open-minded and more  thorough  deliberations?  It  seems  the Apodaca plurality never even conceived of such possibilities…

If Louisiana’s path to an affirmance is a difficult one, the dissent’s is trickier still. The dissent doesn’t dispute that the Sixth Amendment protects the right to a unanimous jury verdict, or that the Fourteenth Amendment extends this right to state-court trials. But, it insists, we must affirm Mr. Ramos’s conviction anyway. Why? Because the doctrine of stare decisis supposedly commands it. …

Even if we accepted the premise that Apodaca established a precedent, no one on the Court today is prepared to say it was rightly decided, and stare decisis isn’t supposed to be the art of methodically ignoring what everyone knows to be true. Of course, the precedents of this Court warrant our deep respect as embodying the considered views of those who have come before. But stare decisis has never been treated as “an inexorable command.” And the doctrine is “at its weakest when we interpret the Constitution” because a mistaken judicial interpretation of that supreme law is often “practically impossible” to correct through other means…  To balance these considerations, when it revisits a precedent this Court has traditionally considered “the quality of the decision’s reasoning; its consistency with related decisions; legal developments since the decision; and reliance on the decision.” In this case, each factor points in the same direction.

[For example], when it comes to reliance interests, [it] might be asserted [that] Louisiana and Oregon may need to retry defendants convicted of felonies by nonunanimous verdicts whose cases are still pending on direct appeal. The dissent claims that this fact supplies the winning argument for retaining Apodaca because it has generated “enormous reliance inter- ests” and overturning the case would provoke a “crushing” “tsunami” of follow-on litigation.

The overstatement may be forgiven as intended for dramatic effect, but prior convictions in only two States are potentially affected by our judgment. Those States credibly claim that the number of nonunanimous felony convictions still on direct appeal are somewhere in the hundreds, and retrying or plea bargaining these cases will surely impose a cost. But new rules of criminal procedures usually do, often affecting significant numbers of pending cases across the whole country. For example, after Booker v. United States held that the Federal Sentencing Guidelines must be advisory rather than mandatory, this Court vacated and remanded nearly 800 decisions to the courts of appeals…. Our decision here promises to cause less, and certainly nothing before us supports the dissent’s surmise that it will cause wildly more, disruption than these other decisions…

Every judge must learn to live with the fact he or she will make some mistakes; it comes with the territory. But it is something else entirely to perpetuate something we all know to be wrong only because we fear the consequences of being right. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is



I agree with most of the Court’s rationale… I write separately, however, to underscore [that] overruling precedent here is not only warranted, but compelled [and that] the racially biased origins of the Louisiana and Oregon laws uniquely matter here.

Both the majority and the dissent rightly emphasize that stare decisis “has been a fundamental part of our jurisprudence since the founding.”… But… Apodaca v. Oregon  (1972), was on shaky ground from the start…

Apodaca is a universe of one—an opinion uniquely irreconcilable with not just one, but two, strands of constitutional precedent well established both before and after the decision. The Court has long recognized that the Sixth Amendment requires unanimity… Moreover, “[t]he force of stare decisis is at its nadir in cases concerning [criminal] procedur[e] rules that implicate fundamental constitutional  protections.” And the constitutional protection here ranks among the most essential: the right to put the State to its burden, in a jury trial that comports with the Sixth Amendment, before facing criminal punishment. Where the State’s power to imprison those like Ramos rests on an erroneous interpretation of the jury-trial right, the Court should not hesitate to reconsider its precedents.

[Further, a] legacy of racism… generated Louisiana’s and Oregon’s laws. Although Ramos does not bring an equal protection challenge, the history is worthy of this Court’s attention. That is not simply because that legacy existed in the first place—unfortunately, many laws and policies in this country have had some history of racial animus—but also because the States’ legislatures never truly grappled with the laws’ sordid history in reenacting them

Where a law otherwise is untethered to racial bias—and perhaps also where a legislature actually confronts a law’s tawdry past in reenacting it—the new law may well be free of discriminatory taint. That cannot be said of the laws at issue here. While the dissent points to the “legitimate” reasons for Louisiana’s reenactment,, Louisiana’s perhaps only effort to contend with the law’s discriminatory purpose and effects came recently, when the law was repealed altogether.

Today, Louisiana’s and Oregon’s laws are fully—and rightly—relegated to the dustbin of history. And so, too, is Apodaca.

JUSTICE KAVANAUGH, concurring in part.

I agree with the Court that the time has come to overrule Apodaca…. I write separately to explain my view of how stare decisis applies to this case…

[T]o “overrule an important precedent is serious business.”…[H]ow does the Court know when to overrule and when to stand pat?...

As I read the Court’s cases on precedent, … three broad considerations…can help guide [whether to] overrule a prior constitutional decision.

First, is the prior decision not just wrong, but grievously or egregiously wrong?.. In conducting that inquiry, the Court may examine the quality of the precedent’s reasoning, consistency and coherence with other decisions, changed law, changed facts, and workability, among other factors. A case may be egregiously wrong when decided, see, e.g., Korematsu v. United States  (1944); Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), or may be unmasked as egregiously wrong based on later legal or factual under- standings or development.

Second, has the prior decision caused significant negative jurisprudential or real-world consequences? In conducting that inquiry, the Court may consider jurisprudential consequences… such as workability, as well as consistency and coherence with  other  decisions,  among  other  factors. Importantly, the Court may also scrutinize the precedent’s real-world effects on the citizenry, not just its effects on the law and the legal system. See, e.g., Brown v. Board of Education.

Third, would overruling the prior decision unduly upset reliance interests? This consideration focuses on the legitimate expectations of those who have reasonably relied on the precedent. In conducting that inquiry, the Court may examine a variety of reliance interests and the age of the precedent, among other factors…

Applying the three broad stare decisis considerations to this case, I agree with the Court’s decision to overrule Apodaca.

First, Apodaca is egregiously wrong. The original meaning and this Court’s precedents establish that the Sixth Amendment requires a unanimous jury…

Second, Apodaca causes significant negative consequences. It is true that Apodaca is workable. But Apodaca sanctions the conviction at trial or by guilty plea of some defendants who might not be convicted under the proper constitutional rule (although exactly how many is of course unknowable). That consequence has traditionally supplied some support for overruling an egregiously wrong criminal-procedure precedent..

In addition, and significant to my analysis of this case, the origins and effects of the non-unanimous jury rule strongly support overruling Apodaca. Louisiana achieved statehood in 1812. And throughout most of the 1800s, the State required unanimous juries in criminal cases. But at its 1898 state constitutional convention, Louisiana enshrined non-unanimous juries into the state constitution. Why the change? The State wanted to diminish the influence of black jurors, who had won the right to serve on juries through the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 and the Civil Rights Act of 1875. See Strauder v. West Virginia  (1880)…

In light of the racist origins of the non-unanimous jury, it is no surprise that non-unanimous juries can make a difference in practice, especially in cases involving black defendants, victims, or jurors. After all, that was the whole point of adopting the non-unanimous jury requirement in the first place. And the math has not changed. Then and now, non-unanimous juries can silence the voices and negate the votes of black jurors, especially in cases with black defend- ants or black victims, and only one or two black jurors. The 10 jurors “can simply ignore the views of their fellow panel members of a different race or class.” That reality—and the resulting perception of unfairness and racial bias—can undermine confidence in and respect for the criminal justice system…

To state the point in simple terms: Why stick by an erroneous precedent that is egregiously wrong as a matter of constitutional law, that allows convictions of some who would not be convicted under the proper constitutional rule, and that tolerates and reinforces a practice that is thoroughly racist in its origins and has continuing racially discriminatory effects?

Third, overruling Apodaca would not unduly upset reliance interests. Only Louisiana and Oregon employ non-unanimous juries in criminal cases. To be sure, in those two States, the Court’s decision today will invalidate some non-unanimous convictions where the issue is preserved and the case is still on direct review. But that consequence almost always ensues when a criminal-procedure precedent that favors the government is overruled.

In sum, Apodaca is egregiously wrong, it has significant negative consequences, and overruling it would not unduly upset reliance interests. I therefore agree with the Court’s decision to overrule Apodaca.

JUSTICE THOMAS, concurring in the judgment.

I agree with the Court that petitioner Evangelisto Ramos’ felony conviction by a nonunanimous jury was unconstitutional. I write separately [to] make clear that this right applies against the States through the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, not the Due Process Clause.

I do not adhere to this Court’s decisions applying due process incorporation, including Apodaca and—it seems—the Court’s opinion in this case [see, e.g., THOMAS, J. concurring in McDonald v. Chicago (2010).]

JUSTICE ALITO, with whom THE CHIEF JUSTICE joins, and with whom JUSTICE KAGAN joins….

I would not overrule Apodaca. Whatever one may think about the correctness of the decision, it has elicited enormous and entirely reasonable reliance. And before this Court decided to intervene, the decision appeared to have little practical importance going forward. Louisiana has now abolished  non-unanimous  verdicts,  and  Oregon seemed on the verge of doing the same until the Court intervened…

I will address why stare decisis supports retention of [Apodaca]. But before reaching those issues, I must say something about the rhetoric with which the majority has seen fit to begin its opinion.

Too much public discourse today is sullied by ad hominem rhetoric, that is, attempts to discredit an argument not by proving that it is unsound but by attacking the character or motives of the argument’s proponents. The majority regrettably succumbs to this trend. At the start of its opinion, the majority asks this rhetorical question: “Why do Louisiana and Oregon allow nonunanimous convictions?” And the answer it suggests? Racism, white supremacy, the Ku Klux Klan. Non-unanimous verdicts, the Court implies, are of a piece with Jim Crow laws, the poll tax, and other devices once used to disfranchise African- Americans.

If Louisiana and Oregon originally adopted their laws allowing non-unanimous verdicts for these reasons, that is deplorable, but what does that have to do with the broad constitutional question before us? The answer is: nothing. For one thing, whatever the reasons why Louisiana and Oregon originally adopted their rules many years ago, both States readopted their rules under different circumstances in  later  years. Louisiana’s constitutional convention of 1974 adopted a new, narrower rule, and its stated purpose was “judicial efficiency.”   

The people of Louisiana ratified the new Constitution. The majority makes no effort to show either that the delegates to the constitutional convention retained the rule for discriminatory purposes or that proponents of the new Constitution made racial appeals when approval was submitted to the people. The same is  true for Oregon’s revisions and reenactments.

The more important point, however, is that today’s decision is not limited to anything particular about Louisiana or Oregon. The Court holds that the Sixth Amendment requires jury unanimity in all state criminal trials. If at some future time another State wanted to allow non-unanimous verdicts, today’s decision would rule that out—even if all that State’s lawmakers were angels.

For this reason, the origins of the Louisiana and Oregon rules have no bearing on the broad constitutional question that the Court decides. That history would be relevant if there were no legitimate reasons why anyone might think that allowing non-unanimous verdicts is good policy. But that is undeniably false.

Some years ago the British Parliament enacted a law allowing non-unanimous verdicts. Was Parliament under the sway of the Klan? The Constitution of Puerto Rico permits non-unanimous verdicts. Were the framers of that Constitution racists? Non-unanimous verdicts were once advocated by the American Law Institute and the American Bar Association. Was their aim to promote white supremacy?... So all the talk about the Klan, etc., is entirely out of place. We should set an example of rational and civil discourse instead of contributing to the worst current trends.

Now to what matters….

What is the majority’s justification for overruling Apodaca?

The majority’s primary reason for overruling Apodaca is [the plurality] “spent almost no time grappling with the historical meaning of the Sixth Amendment’s jury trial right,” it did not give due weight to the “Court’s long-repeated statements that [the right] demands  unanimity,” (3) it did not take into account “the racist origins of [the] Louisian[a] and Orego[n] laws,” [and] it engaged in “a breezy cost-benefit analysis” that, in any event, did not properly weigh the costs and benefits. [T]hese charges are overblown.

[For example], it is quite unfair to criticize [the plurality] for not engaging in a detailed discussion of the original meaning of the Sixth Amendment jury-trial right since [the Court] had already done that just two years before.. in Williams v. Florida (1970) [which] concluded that the Sixth Amendment did not incorporate every feature of the common-law right…. Accordingly, there was no need to repeat what had been said before.

[I]t is similarly unfair to criticize [the Apodaca plurality opinion] for not discussing the prior decisions that commented on jury unanimity. None of those decisions went beyond saying  that this was a feature of the common-law right or cursorily stating that unanimity was required. And as noted, Williams had already held that the Sixth Amendment did not preserve all aspects of the common-law right.

[And] the failure of [plurality] to take into account the supposedly racist origins of the Louisiana and Oregon laws should not be counted as a defect for the reasons already discussed.

Up to this point, I have discussed the majority’s reasons for overruling Apodaca, but that is only half the picture. What convinces me that Apodaca should be retained are the enormous reliance interests of Louisiana and Oregon. For 48 years, Louisiana and Oregon, trusting that Apodaca is good law, have conducted thousands and thousands of trials under rules allowing non-unanimous verdicts. Now, those States face a potential tsunami of litigation on the jury-unanimity issue.

At a minimum, all defendants whose cases are still on direct appeal will presumably be entitled to a new trial if they were convicted by a less-than-unanimous verdict and preserved the issue in the trial court. And at least in Oregon, even if no objection was voiced at trial, defendants may be able to challenge their convictions based on plain error. Oregon asserts that more than a thousand defendants whose cases are still on direct appeal may be able to challenge their convictions if Apodaca is overruled….

Unimpressed by these potential consequences, the majority notes that we “vacated and remanded nearly 800 decisions” for resentencing after United States v. Booker, (2005), held that the Federal Sentencing Guidelines are not mandatory. But the burden of resentencing cannot be compared with the burden of retrying cases. And while resentencing was possible in all the cases affected by Booker, there is no guarantee that all the cases affected by today’s ruling can be retried. In some cases, key witnesses may not be available, and it remains to be seen whether the criminal justice systems of Oregon and Louisiana have the resources to handle the volume of cases in which convictions will be reversed….

In reaching this conclusion, I do not disregard the interests of petitioner and others who were convicted by a less-than-unanimous vote. It is not accurate to imply that these defendants would have been spared conviction if unanimity had been required. In many cases, if a unanimous vote had been needed, the jury would have continued to deliberate and the one or two holdouts might well have ultimately voted to convict.

Nevertheless, the plight of defendants convicted by non-unanimous votes is important and cannot be overlooked, but that alone cannot be dispositive of the stare decisis question. Otherwise, stare decisis would never apply in a case in which a criminal defendant challenges a precedent that led to conviction.