Ramos v. Louisiana: The US Supreme Court’s Interesting Take on the Doctrine of Stare Decisis

By: Mayur Kulkarni


Background 

The Supreme Court of the United States of America (hereinafter ‘the Court’) in Evangelisto Ramos v Louisiana held by a 6-3 majority that the Sixth Amendment, i.e the right to a jury trial, as incorporated against the states by way of the Fourteenth Amendment requires a unanimous verdict by the jury to convict a defendant of serious crimes. The petitioner had challenged the law of convicting persons even by a 10-to-2 jury verdict prevalent in the states of Louisiana and Oregon. Though the case is concerned with the applicability of the Sixth Amendment right to the states, the issue at the heart of this case is the doctrine of stare decisis.     

Forty-eight states and the federal district courts have ruled in the past that a single juror’s vote to acquit is enough to prevent a conviction. However, the two states of  Louisiana and Oregon followed conviction by non-unanimous verdicts relying on the opinion of the Court in Apodaca v Oregon and the companion case of Johnson v Louisiana, where the Court had affirmed conviction by non-unanimous verdicts. Therefore, the core issue before the Court, here, was whether to follow the precedent and allow non-unanimous verdicts or to overrule the precedent and uphold the Sixth Amendment. In this regard, both the majority and the dissenting opinions offered an interesting interpretation of the doctrine of stare decisis which this post seeks to analyse. 

THE MAJORITY OPINION

Gorsuch, J. writing for the majority joined by Ginsberg and Breyer, JJ., overruled Apodaca on mainly two grounds. In order to understand the first ground, it is imperative to take a deeper look at the judgment in Apodaca. In Apodaca, the Court was divided 4-to-4 with Justice Powell as the deciding ninth vote. He had adopted what the Court calls the “dual-track” incorporation approach, under which he agreed that the Sixth Amendment required unanimous conviction but believed that the Fourteenth Amendment does not guarantee the same right against the States (he ruled that the right of unanimous conviction was only available against the Federal Government and not against the State Governments). Keeping this in mind, Gorsuch J. came to the opinion that a single judge writing only for himself (as was the case in Apodaca) cannot bind the subsequent majority of the Court to a proposition which is previously rejected. Explaining his opinion he provided an illustration where, in a matter on whether the State must obtain a warrant before reading a citizen’s emails and use such emails as evidence in a trial, the Court is divided four to four and the ninth judge takes a dual approach that the warrant must be taken but only when the defendant is prosecuted for a felony.  However, the particular case before the Court was of a misdemeanour, and the judge affirmed the conviction on the evidence obtained without a search warrant. In such a situation the opinion of the single judge cannot overrule long-standing precedents requiring suppression of all evidence obtained through warrantless searches. 

Using this analogy, Gorsuch, J. argued that if the opinion of the single judge is to be treated as a precedent then in every occasion when the Court is evenly split, the single Justice would have the opportunity to overturn existing precedent and bind future majorities. This would impair the doctrine of stare decisis rather than strengthening it, and hence concluded that Apodaca had no precedential value. 

Secondly, Gorsuch, J. assuming that Apodaca was an established precedent, argued that it must still be overruled. Because stare decisis has never been an inexorable command and the doctrine is “at its weakest when we interpret the Constitution”. He pointed out four factors that are to be considered when a precedent must be followed or overruled. They were:

  1. The quality of the decision’s reasoning – The decision in question must be well reasoned and must not be gravely mistaken. Also, the opinion must consider the circumstances that led to the alleged violations that the court is addressing.
  2. Consistency with related decisions – The decision must have itself followed settled precedents and must not subsequently be ruled against.
  3. Legal developments since the decision.
  4. Reliance on the decision –  There must be substantial reliance interests in favour of the decision in question. The reliance interests must outweigh the advantages of overruling the said decision.  

Thus, Gorsuch, J. opined that Apodaca must be overruled for the above-mentioned reasons and the non-unanimous convictions must be set aside. 

JUSTICE KAVANAUGH’S CONCURRING OPINION 

Kavanaugh, J. agreeing with the majority that Apodaca must be overruled, provided a three-pronged test to determine when constitutional precedents must be overruled. 

Firstly, the prior decision must not just be wrong but must be grievously or egregiously wrong as a matter of law. In determining what is egregiously wrong the Court must consider precedent’s reasoning, consistency and coherence with the other decisions, changed law, changed facts and workability of the decision.  

Secondly, it is to be seen if the prior decision has caused significant negative jurisprudential or real-world consequences. The Court here may consider factors such as workability of the decision, consistency and coherence with other decisions and more importantly the real-world effects on the citizens and not just on the law and legal system must be considered. 

Thirdly, the effect of overruling on reliance interest must be considered keeping in mind the legitimate expectations of those who have reasonably relied on the precedent and the age of the precedent as a factor can also be considered. 

THE DISSENTING OPINION

Justice Samuel Alito, authored a scathing dissent where he vehemently argued that Apodaca was indeed a precedent as it is “a decided case that furnishes a basis for determining later cases involving similar facts or issues”. Alito, J. agreed that there was no opinion of the Court in Apodaca but the decision is still a precedent as there is a ‘result’ in the case and the result was binding. By ‘result’ he meant that when a defendant is convicted in the state court by 10 out of 12 jurors, her contention that such conviction violates her right to unanimous conviction must fail. The majority of Justices in Apodaca agreed to this result and therefore the result was a binding precedent. He further argued that Apodaca was a precedent because it was a summarily affirmed state-court decision and such summarily affirmative decisions constituted as precedents. 

Alito, J. also argued that Apodaca was a precedent under the Marks rule, i.e. “when a fragmented Court decides a case and no single rationale explaining the result enjoys the assent of five judges, the holding of the Court may be as that position taken by those Members who concurred in the judgments on the narrowest grounds”. He stated that even the position taken by a single justice in the majority can constitute as precedent under the Marks rule as the rule applied equally no matter what the divisions of the Justices in the majority were. 

Answering the majority opinion that Marks rule would not apply when the precedent by a fractured decision overrules a prior precedent, Alito, J. opined that Apodaca had not overruled any precedent as it was the first case dealing with the applicability of the Sixth Amendment right to the States. 

The dissent further argued that Apodaca must not be overruled because there was substantial reliance interest in favour of the decision and if the Court overruled it then thousands of convictions made on the basis of that decision would be called back to trial.  

CONCLUSION

The majority and the concurring opinions of the Court have made some far-reaching observations as part of their discussion on the doctrine of stare decisis. The tests laid down by the majority lack clarity and objectivity. The ‘quality of the decision’ test is a very subjective one and in all probability, the conservative justices on the bench might think that the decisions rendered by liberal justices were ill-reasoned. Also, the majority, in this case, found that the majority decision in Apodaca was ill-reasoned because it took the functionalist approach of interpretation. If such subjective factors are to be considered while judging the quality of a decision then no justice would find a decision following a different approach than his to be compelling and well-reasoned. 

Further the ‘consistency test’ would strip off the precedential value of various landmark judgments as many of them are a result of overruled precedents. So overruling a decision only because the decision in question had itself overruled precedents would be a very mechanical approach to adopt. Even the ‘reliance interest test’ is highly subjective. What degree of reliance interest would qualify as substantial interest in favour of the decision can also vary from justice to justice and issue to issue. Moreover, the majority’s view that opinions of single justices cannot bind future majorities, will undermine the precedential value of many path-breaking judgments of the Court such as Bush v Gore, Citizens United v FEC, Ashcroft v Iqbal to name a few. Even in the near future where swing votes of conservative justices would most likely be the decisive votes on many occasions, the single judge test propounded by the majority would throw the Court into doldrums. If the majority reasoning here is followed by the Court in the days to come, the long-established doctrine of stare decisis would be under serious threat. Therefore, though the Court is right in making Sixth Amendment right applicable against the states also, it has made far-reaching observations on precedents and they must be seen and adopted by the courts with the utmost care and strict restraint. 


(Mayur is currently a law undergraduate at Gujarat National Law University, Gandhinagar. He may be contacted at mayurkulkarni313@gmail.com.)

Cite as: Mayur Kulkarni, ‘Ramos v. Louisiana: The US Supreme Court’s Interesting Take on the Doctrine of Stare Decisis’ (The RMLNLU Law Review Blog, 27 May 2020) <https://rmlnlulawreview.com/2020/05/27/ramos-v-louisiana-the-us-supreme-courts-interesting-take-on-the-doctrine-of-stare-decisis > date of access.

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