Attorney General Urges Supreme Court, Leads Coalition In Amicus Brief

NEW YORK — State Attorney General Letitia James is leading a coalition of nine Attorneys General in an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to recognize that the U.S. constitution requires unanimous verdicts by juries for convictions in state felony trials.

“We have fought hard to guarantee that every American has the right to serve as a juror, and that every jury is drawn from a fair cross-section of our local communities,” James said. “Setting a nationwide standard that requires verdicts to be unanimous will ensure that juries actually consider the diverse views of all their members, rather than ignoring minority viewpoints that may reflect important experiences and varying perspectives.”

In 1972, the Supreme Court held in Apodaca v. Oregon that the U.S. Constitution requires unanimous jury verdicts only in federal felony trials, but not in state felony trials. Despite that ruling, nearly every other state has chosen to retain or enact a unanimity requirement, reflecting the states’ long-held view that such a requirement promotes a fair and impartial criminal justice system.

Oregon remains the only state today that does not require a unanimous jury when rendering a felony verdict, but other states could choose to do the same in the future. Louisiana was the most recent state to implement unanimous jury verdicts, for future cases, when voters supported a measure requiring a change in law in November 2018. While Louisiana changed its rule prospectively, and Oregon is considering doing the same, there are still many individuals, in both states, who were not convicted by unanimous juries; the case before the Supreme Court was brought there by one such defendant from Louisiana.

The Attorneys General further argue that the Supreme Court can revisit the 1972 Apodaca case without abandoning its commitment to precedent due to two unique features in the original case. First, because of an unusual alignment of votes, the controlling opinion in Apodaca represented the views of only a single justice; and second, in recent decisions, the Supreme Court has rejected the basic premise of that justice’s reasoning.

Oregon held a public vote in 1933 to amend the state’s constitution and allow 10-2 jury convictions in felony cases. In Louisiana, a bill requiring only nine jurors to convict a defendant of a felony became law in 1880. In 1898, that law became part of the state’s constitution, and, in 1973, the state’s constitution was changed again so that 10 jurors were required to convict a defendant of a felony. Many argue that the two states enacted these changes long ago for anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, and racist reasons. Louisiana voters changed their law late last year.