June 19, 2019
Carson City, NV – Today, Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford today joined 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. Historically, states that allowed non-unanimous jury verdicts did so as a reaction to then-prevalent racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-immigrant views.
“Convicting someone of a crime and depriving them of their liberty is one of the most powerful functions of our government, which is why the architects of our Constitution required the right to a jury trial,” said AG Ford. “Allowing a non-unanimous jury dilutes that constitutional right. Laws enacted to allow non-unanimous verdicts were intended to penalize minorities and minimize their influence in this country’s criminal justice system. By my Office’s action today, on the 154th anniversary of the last slaves receiving their freedom, we continue our work to erase the vestiges of Jim Crow and anti-Semitism that still remain.”
In 1933, Oregon held a public vote to amend the state’s constitution and allow 10-2 jury convictions in felony cases after a jury failed to convict a Jewish defendant of murder. 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 “to establish the supremacy of the white race in the state.” Louisiana voters changed their law last year.
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.
Although Oregon remains the only state today that does not require a unanimous jury when rendering a felony verdict, other states could choose to do the same in the future unless the Supreme Court concludes that the U.S. Constitution requires unanimous jury verdicts in all felony cases. 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.
In the brief, the nine Attorneys General argue, “Juries subject to a unanimity requirement deliberate longer, evaluate evidence more thoroughly, and grapple with the viewpoints of every member of the jury. This improved deliberative process contributes to more fair and reliable verdicts, which in turn reinforce public confidence in the legitimacy of the criminal justice system. The unanimity requirement is therefore a critical component of the States’ constitutional obligation to administer fair and impartial criminal jury trials.”
The Attorneys General further argue that the Supreme Court can revisit the 1972 Apodaca case without abandoning its strong commitment to precedent. The controlling opinion in Apodaca represented the views of only a single justice, and in recent decisions, the Supreme Court has already rejected the basic premise of that justice’s reasoning.
Joining Attorney General Ford in filing the amicus brief were the Attorneys General of California, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Vermont, Virginia, and the District of Columbia.