Good for the U.S. Supreme Court, which for the second straight year ruled that an element of the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights also applies to the states.
The justices ruled 6-3 last week that the Sixth Amendment’s requirement of unanimous jury verdicts in a federal criminal trial is the law in all the states. In doing this, the court overturned a 2016 Louisiana verdict in which a jury voted 10-2 to convict a man in a homicide. The defendant presumably will get a new trial.
Oregon was the only other state that allowed nonunanimous guilty verdicts in criminal trials. Conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion that Louisiana’s former law — voters there changed it in 2019 to require unanimous verdicts — was a remnant of Jim Crow segregation efforts, while racial and religious bigotry led Oregon to adopt its law in the 1930s.
A year ago, the court ruled that an Indiana law that allowed the seizure of an expensive vehicle in a relatively minor drug case violated the Constitution’s ban on excessive fines — applying that section of the Bill of Rights to the states for the first time.
Last week’s ruling did the same thing for the Sixth Amendment’s criminal conviction requirement, and properly so. But to do it, the justices had to overturn a 1972 ruling, in which the court decided that nothing in the Constitution barred states from allowing nonunanimous convictions.
What was interesting about the ruling is that the court separated from its standard conservative vs. liberal split. Besides Gorsuch, conservative justices Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh voted to overturn the Louisiana conviction, as did liberals Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. Chief Justice John Roberts, fellow conservative Samuel Alito and liberal Elena Kagan were the three dissenters.
This may have occurred because ruling in favor of the defendant required the court to say that its predecessors got it wrong 48 years ago. Historically, the state’s highest court has been reluctant to overturn past rulings, worried that frequent reversals of existing case law would wind up undermining the court’s authority as the final arbiter. But Kavanaugh, in a concurring opinion, said the 1972 ruling was “egregiously wrong,” and he is correct.
The Bill of Rights dates back more than 230 years, but it is rightly prized as both a monument to individual liberty and as a groundbreaking, farsighted set of laws that apply specific restrictions on the power of government. Every single one of the rights in these 10 amendments ought to apply to all Americans without exception.