Supreme Court Weighs Constitutionality of Non-Unanimous Jury Verdicts – what this could mean for future SCOTUS cases
New Jersey, along with 47 other states and federal courts, has long required jury unanimity in criminal trials for serious offenses. In other words, New Jersey requires agreement among all members of jury in order to impose a verdict. The United States Supreme Court recently ruled that this requirement should extend to all states.
Ramos v. Louisiana involved an examination of Louisiana’s allowance for a person to be convicted with as many as 2 dissenters on a jury of 12. The immediate impact of this case is relatively small given that 48 states had already required unanimous juries. However, Ramos is important for signaling how the Court may rule on larger, more controversial issues in the near future. Ramos centered not just on the constitutionality or justness of unanimous juries, but on the role of the Court in overturning its prior decisions (its precedent). The Court had previously ruled years earlier that states could permit criminal convictions with non-unanimous juries. The Ramos Court was deeply divided on how to reconcile the role of the prior precedent with the other considerations in allowing Louisiana’s rule on unanimity to stand. The Court, in multiple concurrences/dissents by multiple justices, dissected the exact reasoning behind the prior precedent, the history and constitutionality of jury unanimity, the morality of allowing the precedent to stand, and multiple other factors in making its decision. In the end, the Court chose to overturn its prior ruling to eliminate non-unanimous juries in criminal matters.
Of course, the Supreme Court is the highest court in the country and thus is free to overturn past rulings. The question remains when is it appropriate to do so and when should precedent be faithfully adhered to. Ramos serves as a peak into how the Court may choose to rule on other matters in the future and should not be overlooked due to the seemingly limited scope of the impact on unanimous juries.
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