The Supreme Court is weighing whether its decision this year requiring juries to be unanimous to convict someone of a crime should be applied retroactively. If a majority of the justices say yes, hundreds or thousands of convictions could be overturned, the Wall Street Journal reports. Until the high court ruled the practice unconstitutional in April, defendants in Louisiana, Oregon and Puerto Rico could be convicted even if the jury wasn’t unanimous. Wednesday’s argument involved fundamental questions regarding the origin and application of constitutional rights.
Andre Belanger, the Baton Rouge, La., lawyer arguing for retroactivity, said the April decision, Ramos v. Louisiana, should be viewed as a landmark in constitutional law, akin to Gideon v. Wainwright, the 1963 opinion requiring the government to provide a defense attorney for indigent defendants charged with serious crimes. Justice Samuel Alito countered that, unlike the 1963 decision, the Ramos opinion relied on the framers’ understanding of the jury right in 1791, when the Bill of Rights was ratified. The Ramos decision divided the court. Conservatives and liberals formed the majority through differently reasoned opinions, while Justice Alito dissented, joined in whole or most part by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Elena Kagan. Justice Stephen Breyer had concerns over the practical effect of retroactivity. “Can the Louisiana system handle that?” he asked, after Belanger said at most 1,600 cases in the state could be affected. “Oh yes, sir,” Belanger said. “We’re really looking at our estimates of maybe two to three cases per prosecutor.”