Edwards v. Vannoy

No. 19-5807 - Argued December 2, 2020
At Issue

Does the Court’s decision in Ramos v. Louisiana, holding that the Sixth Amendment establishes a right to a unanimous jury in both federal and state courts, apply retroactively to cases on federal collateral review?

  • Andre Belanger, for the petitioner
  • Elizabeth Murrill, for the respondent
  • Christopher G. Michel, for the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the respondent
Background and Case Commentary

Edwards v. Vannoy concerns the doctrine of retroactivity—when new constitutional rules of criminal procedure apply to cases that have already become final. A case becomes final when the appeals and possible petition for certiorari have culminated. Generally, new constitutional rules of criminal procedure do not apply to cases that have become final. But new “substantive” rules, such as a constitutional right to engage in the conduct that led to the conviction, do apply retroactively as do new “watershed” rules of criminal procedure that affect the accuracy of a conviction.

Edwards asks whether the Supreme Court’s decision from last term, Ramos v. Louisiana, is one of those retroactive rules. Ramos held that the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments require states to obtain criminal convictions through unanimous verdicts; states cannot convict a defendant based on a 10-2 jury verdict.

In Edwards, Mr. Edwards is arguing first that the holding in Ramos did not announce a new rule. Writing for himself in Ramos, Justice Gorsuch agreed, explaining that the Court’s earlier cases on incorporating most of the Bill of Rights to apply against the states and on the requirement of unanimity dictated the result in Ramos. The defendant is also arguing that Ramos was a watershed rule.  Because only watershed rules apply retroactively, and because watershed rules are those that increase accuracy, the Court was interested in what it means for a rule to increase accuracy and whether Ramos is such a rule. The Chief Justice, Justice Kagan, Justice Barrett, and Justice Thomas all asked questions about “accuracy.”

Justice Kagan asked Mr. Edwards’ lawyer about what accuracy means and how to determine whether a given rule affects the accuracy of a conviction.

Edwards v. Vannoy on Oyez: https://www.oyez.org/cases/2020/19-5807

Key Questions from Oral Argument

Justice Kagan to Petitioner (17:32): Mr. Belanger, as you know, I thought that Apodaca was a precedent, so you would have a very steep climb to get me to think that Ramos was anything other than a new rule. So I want to focus on the watershed inquiry, and in that inquiry, we've talked a lot about accuracy. And I think somebody previously asked you about your empirical evidence, and I'll just give you sort of my sense that the empirics here are sparse, maybe surprisingly sparse, as to how this unanimity requirement works with respect to what I take to be the ordinary meaning of "accuracy," which is simply a reduction in the error rate in trials. And -- and so too it seems like one's intuition is not necessarily in your corner, that it might be that the unanimity rule allows more guilty people to go free than it -- than it stops innocent people from being convicted, or at least it's just not certain. So I -- I guess what I -- I'd like to ask you is whether your -- well, I mean, number one, do you just contest all of everything that I just said? But, number two, are -- are you talking about accuracy in some different sense? Your first sentence to us was, "A verdict by a nonunanimous jury is no verdict at all." And then you talked about a verdict can be inaccurate and unfair even though it leads to the right decision. And I guess what I'm asking is, are you talking about and do you think in our cases we've been talking about accuracy in some different sense than simply the reduction of errors in whatever direction?

Leah Litman: Your Honor, accuracy means something more than just the reduction of errors. The fact that requiring unanimity is empirically correlated with a reduction of errors—and nonunanimity associated with errors—only further bolsters our position.

But accuracy has to mean something more than the reduction of errors or else Gideon v. Wainwright, the decision announcing that all defendants have a right to counsel regardless of their ability to pay, would not be a watershed rule. Sometimes having a lawyer will help a guilty person go free; sometimes it will prevent an innocent person from being convicted. But Gideon is still a watershed rule because it announced a rule that is essential to a fair process.

Unanimity of jurors is essential to a fair process for the reasons this Court explained in Ramos. It ensures that no member of the jury can be ignored; it also ensures that the state convince every citizen of the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. As Justice Douglas wrote several decades ago, a unanimous jury is necessary to maintain the great barricade known as proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Studies show that unanimous juries take more time to discuss the evidence than non-unanimous ones. And requiring unanimity leads to juries requesting additional instructions and clarifications on the relevant legal rules.

Jury unanimity is essential to a fair process for another reason—namely, as this Court explained in Ramos, the states that permitted non-unanimous juries did so in order to dilute the power of Black jurors and thereby increase the conviction rates for Black defendants. Indeed, a disproportionate number of verdicts returned by racially mixed non-unanimous juries were guilty, where Black jurors disproportionately cast not guilty votes that were overridden. So requiring unanimity was essential to a fair process in that it removed racial discrimination from courthouses and convictions.

Finally, when Teague talked about accuracy, it was particularly concerned about the accuracy of convictions, not the accuracy of acquittals. And there is very powerful evidence that unanimity does increase the accuracy of a conviction in the sense that it reduces the erroneous conviction rate at trials. One study found that unanimous juries were more likely to reach the legally accurate verdict than the non-unanimous jury and more likely to correct erroneous assertions made during deliberations. The Innocence Project’s study of exonerations in Louisiana, which has the second highest per capita rate of exonerations, showed that almost half of the 33 sampled Louisiana exonerations were in cases where a non-unanimous jury had convicted the defendant. That is almost a quarter of all Louisiana exoneration cases.