U.S. Supreme Court overturns Oregon ballot measure from 1932 that enacted non-unanimous jury verdicts

On April 20, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned an Oregon ballot measure from 1932 in its ruling on Ramos v. Louisiana. In 2016, Evangelisto Ramos was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment on a 10 to 12 jury verdict. He appealed his conviction to the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal, arguing his conviction by a non-unanimous jury violated his federal constitutional rights. The court of appeal affirmed Ramos’ conviction and sentence. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, and in a 6-3 decision, the Court held that “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.”

In 1932, Oregon voters passed Measure 2, a legislatively referred constitutional amendment, with 58 percent of the vote. The measure allowed non-unanimous verdicts in all criminal trials, except first-degree murder trials. It also provided that in criminal trials any accused person, with the consent of the trial judge, may waive trial by a jury and consent in writing to be tried by the judge alone. In the published voting guide, state legislators in favor of the amendment argued that it would “prevent one or two jurors from controlling the verdict.”

Oregon and Louisiana were the last two states to allow non-unanimous verdicts. Between 1812 and 1898, the state of Louisiana required unanimous juries to convict persons for felonies in state criminal trials. In 1898, Louisiana held a state constitutional convention, which resulted in an amendment to allow 9-3 verdicts for serious felonies. In 1973, Louisiana held another state constitutional convention, which increased the requirement for non-unanimous verdicts from 9-3 to 10-2. In 2018, Louisiana voters approved Amendment 2 with 64 percent of the vote. It was a legislatively referred constitutional amendment that required the unanimous agreement of the jurors to convict people charged with felonies.

In its decision, the Supreme Court explained that the enactment of non-unanimous jury verdicts in Oregon and Louisiana was a product of racism. Writing the majority opinion for the Court, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote, “Courts in both Louisiana and Oregon have frankly acknowledged that race was a motivating factor in the adoption of their States’ respective nonunanimity rules.”

Justices Samuel Alito, John Roberts, and Elena Kagan dissented. In his dissenting opinion, Alito argued against overturning precedent established by Apodaca v. Oregon (1972), which ruled that the Sixth Amendment required unanimous juries to convict persons in federal criminal trials but that the Fourteenth Amendment did not extend the requirement of unanimous juries to state criminal trials. He argued that overruling Apodaca would cause “a potential tsunami of litigation.” The Court’s majority acknowledged the potential number of cases challenging non-unanimous jury verdicts but determined that it did not justify withholding the Sixth Amendment’s protections to state criminal trials.

Additional reading:
Oregon Criminal Trials Without Juries, Measure 2 (May 1934)
Louisiana Amendment 2, Unanimous Jury Verdict for Felony Trials Amendment (2018)