WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court struggled on Wednesday to determine whether its decision in April to ban non-unanimous jury verdicts in cases involving serious crimes should apply retroactively, potentially entitling thousands of inmates in Louisiana, Oregon and Puerto Rico to new trials.
The April decision, Ramos v. Louisiana, struck down a provision of the Louisiana Constitution that allowed convictions if 10 of 12 jurors agreed. Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, writing for the majority, said the provision was a relic of white supremacy — an attempt to make sure that one or two Black jurors could not prevent the convictions of Black defendants.
At Wednesday’s argument, Justice Clarence Thomas noted the provision’s “sordid roots” and Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh referred to its “racist origins.”
The Ramos decision applied only to defendants whose convictions were not yet final. Wednesday’s argument was about whether the decision should also apply to inmates who had exhausted their appeals.
The new case was brought by Thedrick Edwards, a Black man who was charged with armed robbery, rape and kidnapping. Prosecutors used 10 of their 11 strikes to exclude Black potential jurors, and in the end the jury included one Black juror.
The verdict was 10 to 2 on some counts and 11 to 1 on others, with the Black juror voting to acquit on all of the charges. Mr. Edwards was sentenced to life in prison.
On Wednesday, Justice Kavanaugh said that “the facts of this case certainly seem troubling on how it all played out.”
Justice Elena Kagan said there were good reasons to apply the Ramos decision retroactively.
“Ramos says that if you haven’t been convicted by a unanimous jury, you really haven’t been convicted at all,” she said. “And so how could it be that a rule like that does not have retroactive effect?”
But a 1989 precedent, Teague v. Lane, said that a ruling on criminal procedure was retroactive if it applied an existing precedent but not if it announced a new legal principle.
Since six justices in the Ramos decision understood it to overrule a precedent that had allowed non-unanimous juries, argued Elizabeth Murrill, Louisiana’s solicitor general, it necessarily announced a new legal principle.
The Teague decision made an exception for new “watershed rules” on the fundamental fairness and accuracy of trials. But that exception has never been used.
“Teague’s test is a demanding one,” Justice Gorsuch wrote in Ramos, “so much so that this court has yet to announce a new rule of criminal procedure capable of meeting it.”
Justice Stephen G. Breyer wanted to know how many new trials would be required if the court made the Ramos ruling retroactive.
Andre Belanger, a lawyer for Mr. Edwards, said the outer limit in Louisiana was about 1,600. “The system is more than capable of accommodating this kind of caseload,” he said.
Ms. Murrill did not dispute the figure but said that many trials would impose enormous burdens in Louisiana, Oregon and Puerto Rico, the three jurisdictions that allowed non-unanimous verdicts when the Ramos case was decided.
“There can be no doubt that declaring the Ramos rule retroactive unsettles thousands of cases that involve terrible crimes in all three jurisdictions,” she said. “Requiring new trials in long-final criminal cases would be impossible in some and particularly unfair to the victims of these crimes.”
Justice Gorsuch said that practical considerations were not relevant.
“Wouldn’t we expect it to be difficult if, in fact, it were a watershed rule?” he said of the potential need for many retrials. “If this really were a significant change and an important one, wouldn’t we expect there to be some burden for the state?”