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SCOTUS Holds Ramos’ Unanimous Jury Requirement Is New Procedural Rule and Announces No New Procedural Rule Applies Retroactively on Federal Collateral Review

by Dale Chappell

The Supreme Court of the United States held that its landmark decision issued on April 20, 2020, in Ramos v. Louisiana, 140 S. Ct. 1390 (2020), which requires that all jury verdicts must be unanimous to convict a criminal defendant of a serious offense, is a new criminal procedural rule that does not apply retroactively on federal collateral review. The Court went even further and dashed any hope that a new criminal procedural rule could ever be retroactive by declaring its “watershed” exception to nonretroactivity to be nonexistent.

After Thedrick Edwards was charged with robbery, rape, and kidnapping, he gave a video-recorded confession to law enforcement when he turned himself in. Nevertheless, he chose to go to trial, where a non-unanimous jury found him guilty. Under Louisiana law at the time, it was acceptable for a non-unanimous jury to convict someone. Louisiana and Oregon were the only two states that allowed it at the time. Edwards was sentenced to life without parole.

After his appeals were all rejected, Edwards filed for state postconviction relief claiming that a non-unanimous jury verdict violated his constitutional rights. When that was denied, he went on to file a federal habeas petition with the same claim. The court denied relief, holding that Apodaca v. Oregon, 406 U.S. 404 (1972), foreclosed his claim. SCOTUS held in Apodaca that the Sixth Amendment’s unanimous jury requirement only applies in federal criminal trials, not state trials. Edwards filed a petition for certiorari in SCOTUS.

While Edwards’ certiorari petition was pending, SCOTUS decided Ramos, which held that a unanimous jury verdict is required in both state and federal trials. “A verdict, taken from eleven, is no verdict at all,” SCOTUS declared in that case.

Two issues controlled the outcome of Edwards’ case: (1) whether Ramos is a new procedural rule, and (2) if it is, whether it applies retroactively to cases on federal collateral review.

Edwards argued that Ramos is not a new rule but an extension of old rules that always apply in criminal trials, namely those based on the Sixth Amendment. The Court disagreed and held that Ramos expressly overruled Apodaca, which is the quintessential example of a new rule.

Having held that Ramos is a new rule, the Court turned to the issue of whether it applies retroactively. The Court discussed the nonretroactivity doctrine, which states that new criminal procedural rules ordinarily do not apply retroactively to cases on federal collateral review. See Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288 (1989) (plurality opinion). While they apply to cases on direct appeal, see Griffith v. Kentucky, 479 U.S. 314 (1987), because those cases are not yet “final,” a case on federal collateral review attacks a final judgment, and SCOTUS has determined that finality concerns trump a new rule’s undoing of an unfair criminal proceeding. Teague (plurality opinion). SCOTUS reasoned that the “costs imposed upon the States by retroactive application of new rules of constitutional law on habeas corpus thus generally far outweigh the benefits of this application.” Sawyer v. Smith, 497 U.S. 227 (1990). However, the Teague Court stated there is an exception to the nonretroactivity doctrine for new procedural rules that are “watershed” rules. 

These have been defined by SCOUTS as those that alter the understanding of the “bedrock procedural elements essential to the fairness of a proceeding.” Whorton v. Bockting, 549 U.S. 406 (2007). SCOTUS recognized that watershed rules are exceedingly rare, if they ever occur at all. Teague (plurality opinion). In fact, the Court observed that “in the 32 years since Teague … the Court has never found that any new procedural rule actually satisfies that procedural exception.” Furthermore, the Court “identified only one pre-Teague procedural rule as watershed: the right to counsel recognized in the Court landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963).”

The Court explained that SCOTUS “since Teague has rejected every claim that a new procedural rule qualifies as a watershed rule,” adding that SCOTUS “has flatly proclaimed on multiple occasions that the watershed exception is unlikely to cover any more new rules.” True to form, the Court rejected each of Edwards’ arguments as to why Ramos constitutes a watershed exception that should apply retroactively on federal collateral review.

The Court then announced that “[n]ew procedural rules do not apply retroactively on federal collateral review.” In doing so, the Court explained that continuing to cling to a “theoretical exception that never actually applies in practice offers false hope to defendants, distorts the law, misleads judges, and wastes the resources of defense counsel, prosecutors, and courts.”

Thus, the Court held that “Ramos announced a new rule of criminal procedure,” and it “does not apply retroactively on federal collateral review,” after having announced a blanket rule that new “procedural rules do not apply retroactively on federal collateral review.”

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the judgment of the Fifth Circuit.  See: Edwards v. Vannoy, 141 S. Ct. 1547 (2021). 


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