One Path Forward

Gideon v. Wainwright (1963)

372 U.S. 335 (1963)

Opinion: J. Black
Decision: unanimous reversed
Majority: J. Black, joined by J. Warren, J. Brennan, J. Stewart, J. White
Concurring: J. Clark, J. Harlan, J. Douglas

MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner was charged in a Florida state court with having broken and entered a poolroom with intent to commit a misdemeanor. This offense is a felony under Florida law. Appearing in court without funds and without a lawyer, petitioner asked the court to appoint counsel for him, whereupon the following colloquy took place:

“The COURT: Mr. Gideon, I am sorry, but I cannot appoint Counsel to represent you in this case. Under the laws of the State of Florida, the only time the Court can appoint Counsel to represent a Defendant is when that person is charged with a capital offense. I am sorry, but I will have to deny your request to appoint Counsel to defend you in this case.”

“The DEFENDANT: The United States Supreme Court says I am entitled to be represented by Counsel.”

Put to trial before a jury, Gideon conducted his defense about as well as could be expected from a layman. He made an opening statement to the jury, cross-examined the State’s witnesses, presented witnesses in his own defense, declined to testify himself, and. made a short argument “emphasizing his innocence to the charge contained in the Information filed in this case.” The jury returned a verdict of guilty, and petitioner was sentenced to serve five years in the state prison. Later, petitioner filed in the Florida Supreme Court this habeas corpus petition attacking his conviction and sentence on the ground that the trial court’s refusal to appoint counsel for him denied him rights “guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights by the United States Government.” …

The facts upon which Betts claimed that he had been unconstitutionally denied the right to have counsel appointed to assist him are strikingly like the facts upon which Gideon here bases his federal constitutional claim. Betts was indicted for robbery in a Maryland state court. On arraignment, he told the trial judge of his lack of funds to hire a lawyer and asked the court to appoint one for him. Betts was advised that it was not the practice in that county to appoint counsel for indigent defendants except in murder and rape cases. He then pleaded not guilty, had witnesses summoned, cross-examined the State’s witnesses, examined his own, and chose not to testify himself. He was found guilty by the judge, sitting without a jury, and sentenced to eight years in prison …

Like Gideon, Betts sought release by habeas corpus, alleging that he had been denied the right to assistance of counsel in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Betts was denied any relief, and on review this Court affirmed. It was held that a refusal to appoint counsel for an indigent defendant charged with a felony did not necessarily violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which for reasons given the Court deemed to be the only applicable federal constitutional provision …

The Sixth Amendment provides, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right … to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.” We have construed this to mean that in federal courts counsel must be provided for defendants unable to employ counsel unless the right is competently and intelligently waived.’ Betts argued that this right is extended to indigent defendants in state courts by the Fourteenth Amendment. In response the Court stated that, while the Sixth Amendment laid down “no rule for the conduct of the States, the question recurs whether the constraint laid by the Amendment upon the national courts expresses a rule so fundamental and essential to a fair trial, and so, to due process of law, that it is made obligatory upon the States by the Fourteenth Amendment …

On the basis of this historical data the Court concluded that “appointment of counsel is not a fundamental right, essential to a fair trial.” … It was for this reason the Betts Court refused to accept the contention that the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of counsel for indigent federal defendants was extended to or, in the words of that Court, “made obligatory upon the States by the Fourteenth Amendment.” Plainly, had the Court concluded that appointment of counsel for an indigent criminal defendant was “a fundamental right, essential to a fair trial,” it would have held that the Fourteenth Amendment requires appointment of counsel in’ a state court, just as the Sixth Amendment requires in a federal court …

In many cases other than Powell and Betts, this Court has looked to the fundamental nature of original Bill of Rights guarantees to decide whether the Fourteenth Amendment makes them obligatory on the States. Explicitly recognized to be of this “fundamental nature” and therefore made immune from state invasion by the Fourteenth, or some part of it, are the First Amendment’s freedoms of speech, press, religion, assembly, association, and petition for redress of grievances. For the same reason, though not always in precisely the same terminology, the Court had made obligatory on the States the Fifth Amendment’s command that private property shall not be taken for public use without just compensation, the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures,’ and the Eighth’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment …

We accept Betts v. Brady’s assumption, based as it was on our prior cases, that a provision of the Bill of Rights which is “fundamental and essential to a fait trial” is made obligatory upon the States by the Fourteenth Amendment. We think the Court in Betts was wrong, however, in concluding that the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of counsel is not one of these fundamental rights. Ten years before Betts v. Brady, this Court, after full consideration of all the historical data examined in Betts, had unequivocally declared that “the right to the aid of counsel is of this fundamental character.” Powell v. Alabama (1932). While the Court at the close of its Powell opinion did by its language, as this Court frequently does, limit its holding to the particular facts and circumstances of that case, its conclusions about the fundamental nature of the right to counsel are unmistakable …

In returning, to these old precedents, sounder we believe than the new, we but restore constitutional principles established to achieve a fair system of justice. Not only these precedents but also reason and reflection require us to recognize that in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him. This seems to us to be an obvious truth. Governments, both state and federal, quite properly spend vast sums of money to establish machinery to try defendants accused of crime. Lawyers to prosecute are everywhere deemed essential to protect the public’s interest in an orderly society. Similarly, there are few defendants charged with crime, few indeed, who fail to hire the best lawyers they can get to prepare and present their defenses. That government hires lawyers to prosecute and defendants who have the money hire lawyers to defend are the strongest indications of the widespread belief that lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries. The right of one charged with crime to counsel may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some countries, but it is in ours. From the very beginning, our state and national constitutions and laws have laid great emphasis on procedural and substantive safeguards designed to assure fair trials before impartial tribunals in which every defendant stands equal before the law. This noble ideal cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him …

The Court in Betts v. Brady departed from the sound wisdom upon which the Court’s holding in Powell v. Alabama rested. Florida, supported by two other States, has asked that Betts v. Brady be left intact. Twenty-two States, as friends of the Court, argue that Betts was “an anachronism when handed down” and that it should now be overruled. We agree.

The judgment is reversed and the cause is remanded to the Supreme Court of Florida for further action not inconsistent with this opinion.


MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS, concurring in judgement.

While I join the opinion of the Court, a brief historical resume of the relation between the Bill of Rights and the first section of the Fourteenth Amendment seems pertinent. Since the adoption of that Amendment, ten Justices have felt that it protects from infringement by the States the privileges, protections, and safeguards granted by the Bill of Rights. Justice Field, the first Justice Harlan, and probably Justice Brewer, took that position in O’Neil v. Vermont … as did Justices BLACK, DOUGLAS, Murphy and Rutledge in Adamson v. California … That view was also expressed by Justices Bradley and Swayne in the Slaughter-House Cases … and seemingly was accepted by Justice Clifford when he dissented with Justice Field in Walker v. Sauvinet … Unfortunately it has never commanded a Court. Yet, happily, all constitutional questions are always open. … And what we do today does not foreclose the matter.

My Brother HARLAN is of the view that a guarantee of the Bill of Rights that is made applicable to the States by reason of the Fourteenth Amendment is a lesser version of that same guarantee as applied to the Federal Government.’ Mr. Justice Jackson shared that view. But that view has not prevailed ‘ and rights protected against state invasion by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment are not watered-down versions of what the Bill of Rights guarantees.

Duncan v. Louisiana (1968)

391 U.S. 145 (1968)

Vote: 7-2
Opinion: White
Decision: Reversed
Majority: White, joined by Warren, Black, Douglas, Brennan, Fortas, Marshall
Concurring: Black, Douglas, Fortas
Dissent: Harlan and Stewart

MR. JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

Appellant, Gary Duncan, was convicted of simple battery in the Twenty-fifth Judicial District Court of Louisiana. Under Louisiana law simple battery is a misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum of two years’ imprisonment and a $300 fine. Appellant sought trial by jury, but because the Louisiana Constitution grants jury trials only in cases in which capital punishment or imprisonment at hard labor may be imposed, the trial judge denied the request. Appellant was convicted and sentenced to serve 60 days in the parish prison and pay a fine of $150. Appellant sought review in the Supreme Court of Louisiana, asserting that the denial of jury trial violated rights guaranteed to him by the United States Constitution … appellant sought review in this Court, alleging that the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution secure the right to jury trial in state criminal prosecutions where a sentence as long as two years may be imposed …

Appellant was 19 years of age when tried. While driving on Highway 23 in Plaquemines Parish on October 18, 1966, he saw two younger cousins engaged in a conversation by the side of the road with four white boys. Knowing his cousins, Negroes who had recently transferred to a formerly all-white high school, had reported the occurrence of racial incidents at the school, Duncan stopped the car, got out, and approached the six boys. At trial the white boys and a white onlooker testified, as did appellant and his cousins. The testimony was in dispute on many points, but the witnesses agreed that appellant and the white boys spoke to each other, that appellant encouraged his cousins to break off the encounter and enter his car, and that appellant was about to enter the car himself for the purpose of driving away with his cousins. The whites testified that just before getting in the car appellant slapped Herman Landry, one of the white boys, on the elbow. The Negroes testified that appellant had not slapped Landry, but had merely touched him. The trial judge concluded that the State had proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Duncan had committed simple battery, and found him guilty.

The test for determining whether a right extended by the Fifth and Sixth Amendments with respect to federal criminal proceedings is also protected against state action by the Fourteenth Amendment has been phrased in a variety of ways in the opinions of this Court. The question has been asked whether a right is among those “‘fundamental principles of’ liberty and justice which lie at the base of all our civil and political institutions,'” Powell v Alabama (1932). The claim before us is that the right to trial by jury guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment meets these tests. The position of Louisiana, on the other hand, is that the Constitution imposes upon the States no duty to give a jury trial in any criminal case, regardless of the seriousness of the crime or the size of the punishment which may be imposed. Because we believe that trial by jury in criminal cases is fundamental to the American scheme of justice, we hold that the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees a right of jury trial in all criminal cases which-were they to be tried in a federal court-would come within the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee … Since we consider the appeal before us to be such a case, we hold that the Constitution was violated when appellant’s demand for jury trial was refused …

The history of trial by jury in criminal cases has been frequently told. It is sufficient for present purposes to say that by the time our Constitution was written, jury trial in criminal cases had been in existence in England for several centuries and carried impressive credentials traced by many to Magna Carta. Its preservation and proper operation as a protection against arbitrary rule were among the major objective of the revolutionary settlement which was expressed in the Declaration and Bill of Rights of 1689 …

Even such skeletal history is impressive support for considering the right to jury trial in criminal cases to be fundamental to our system of justice, an importance frequently recognized in the opinions of this Court …

Jury trial continues to receive strong support. The laws of every State guarantee a right to jury trial in serious criminal cases; no State has dispensed with it; nor are there significant movements underway to do so. Indeed, the three most recent state constitutional revisions, in Maryland, Michigan, and New York, carefully preserved the right of the accused to have the judgment of a jury when tried for a serious crime …

Those who wrote our constitutions knew from history and experience that it was necessary to protect against unfounded criminal charges brought to eliminate enemies and against judges too responsive to the voice of higher authority. The framers of the constitutions strove to create an independent judiciary but insisted upon further protection against arbitrary action. Providing an accused with the right to be tried by a jury of his peers gave him an inestimable safeguard against the corrupt or overzealous prosecutor and against the compliant, biased, or eccentric judge. If the defendant preferred the common-sense judgment of a jury to the more tutored but perhaps less sympathetic reaction of the single judge, he was to have it. Beyond this, the jury trial provisions in the Federal and State Constitutions reflect a fundamental decision about the exercise of official power-a reluctance to entrust plenary powers over the life and liberty of the citizen to one judge or to a group of judges. Fear of unchecked power, so typical of our State and Federal Governments in other respects, found expression in the criminal law in this insistence upon community participation in the determination of guilt or innocence. The deep commitment of the Nation to the right of jury trial in serious criminal cases as a defense against arbitrary law enforcement qualifies for protection under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and must therefore be respected by the States …

We would not assert, however, that every criminal trial-or any particular trial-held before a judge alone is unfair or that a defendant may never be as fairly treated by a judge as he would be by a jury. Thus, we hold no constitutional doubts about the practices, common in both federal and state courts, of accepting waivers of jury trial and prosecuting petty crimes without extending a right to jury trial. However, the fact is that in most places more trials for serious crimes are to juries than to a court alone; a great many defendants prefer the judgment of a jury to that of a court. Even where defendants are satisfied with bench trials, the right to a jury trial very likely serves its intended purpose of making judicial or prosecutorial unfairness less likely …

Louisiana’s final contention is that even if it must grant jury trials in serious criminal cases, the conviction before us is valid and constitutional because here the petitioner was tried for simple battery and was sentenced to only 60 days in the parish prison. We are not persuaded. It is doubtless true that there is a category of petty crimes or offenses which is not subject to the Sixth Amendment jury trial provision s’ and should not be subject to the Fourteenth Amendment jury trial requirement here applied to the States. Crimes carrying possible penalties up to six months do not require a jury trial if they otherwise qualify as petty offenses, Cheff v. Schnackenberg (1966). But the penalty authorized for a particular crime is of major relevance in determining whether it is serious or not and may in itself, if severe enough, subject the trial to the mandates of the Sixth Amendment. District of Columbia v. Clawans (1937). In the case before us, the Legislature of Louisiana has made simple battery a criminal offense punishable by imprisonment for up to two years and a fine. The question, then, is whether a crime carrying such a penalty is an offense which Louisiana may insist on trying without a jury.

We think not … Of course, the boundaries of the petty offense category have always been ill-defined, if not ambulatory. In the absence of an explicit constitutional provision, the definitional task necessarily falls on the courts, which must either pass upon the validity of legislative attempts to identify those petty offenses which are exempt from jury trial or, where the legislature has not addressed itself to the problem, themselves face the question in the first instance. In either case it is necessary to draw a line in the spectrum of crime, separating petty from serious infractions. This process, although essential, cannot be wholly satisfactory, for it requires attaching different -consequences to events which, when they lie near the line, actually differ very little.

In determining whether the length of the authorized prison term or the seriousness of other punishment is enough in itself to require a jury trial, we are counseled b … chiefly the existing laws and practices in the Nation. In the federal system, petty offenses are defined as those punishable by no more than six months in prison and a $500 fine. In 49 of the 50 States crimes subject to trial without a jury, which occasionally include simple battery, are punishable by no more than one year in jail.” … We need not, however, settle in this case the exact location of the line between petty offenses and serious crimes. It is sufficient for our purposes to hold that a crime punishable by two years in prison is, based on past and contemporary standards in this country, a serious crime and not a petty offense.” Consequently, appellant was entitled to a jury trial and it was error to deny it.

The judgment below is reversed and the case is remanded for proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

McDonald v. Chicago (2010)

561 U.S. 742 (2010)

Vote: 5-4
Opinion: J. Alito
Decision: Reversed
Majority: J. Alito, joined by J. Roberts, J. Scalia, J. Kennedy, J. Thomas (Parts I, II–A, II–B, II–D, III–A, and III–B); J. Roberts, J. Scalia, J. Kennedy (Parts II–C, IV, and V)
Concurring: J. Scalia, J. Thomas
Dissent: J. Stevens, J. Breyer, J. Ginsburg, J. Sotomayor

Justice Alito announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II–A, II–B, II–D, and III, in which The Chief Justice, Justice Scalia, Justice Kennedy, and Justice Thomas join, and an opinion with respect to Parts II–C, IV, and V, in which The Chief Justice, Justice Scalia, and Justice Kennedy join.

Otis McDonald, Adam Orlov, Colleen Lawson, and David Lawson (Chicago petitioners) are Chicago residents who would like to keep handguns in their homes for self-defense but are prohibited from doing so by Chicago’s firearms laws. A City ordinance provides that “[n]o person shall … possess … any firearm unless such person is the holder of a valid registration certificate for such firearm.” Chicago, Ill., Municipal Code § 8–20–040(a) (2009). The Code then prohibits registration of most handguns, thus effectively banning handgun possession by almost all private citizens who reside in the City. § 8–20–050(c). Like Chicago, Oak Park makes it “unlawful for any person to possess … any firearm,” a term that includes “pistols, revolvers, guns and small arms … commonly known as handguns.” …

Chicago enacted its handgun ban to protect its residents “from the loss of property and injury or death from firearms.” See Chicago, Ill., Journal of Proceedings of the City Council, p. 10049 (Mar. 19, 1982). The Chicago petitioners and their amici, however, argue that the handgun ban has left them vulnerable to criminals. Chicago Police Department statistics, we are told, reveal that the City’s handgun murder rate has actually increased since the ban was enacted and that Chicago residents now face one of the highest murder rates in the country and rates of other violent crimes that exceed the average in comparable cities.

Several of the Chicago petitioners have been the targets of threats and violence. For instance, Otis McDonald, who is in his late seventies, lives in a high-crime neighborhood. He is a community activist involved with alternative policing strategies, and his efforts to improve his neighborhood have subjected him to violent threats from drug dealers … Colleen Lawson is a Chicago resident whose home has been targeted by burglars … Lawson, and the other Chicago petitioners own handguns that they store outside of the city limits, but they would like to keep their handguns in their homes for protection …

After our decision in Heller, the Chicago petitioners and two groups filed suit against the City in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. They sought a declaration that the handgun ban and several related Chicago ordinances violate the Second and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. Another action challenging the Oak Park law was filed in the same District Court by the National Rifle Association (NRA) and two Oak Park residents. In addition, the NRA and others filed a third action challenging the Chicago ordinances. All three cases were assigned to the same District Judge …

Petitioners argue that the Chicago and Oak Park laws violate the right to keep and bear arms for two reasons. Petitioners’ primary submission is that this right is among the “privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States” and that the narrow interpretation of the Privileges or Immunities Clause adopted in the Slaughter-House Cases, supra, should now be rejected. As a secondary argument, petitioners contend that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause “incorporates” the Second Amendment right …

As previously noted, the Seventh Circuit concluded that Cruikshank, Presser, and Miller doomed petitioners’ claims at the Court of Appeals level. Petitioners argue, however, that we should overrule those decisions and hold that the right to keep and bear arms is one of the “privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” In petitioners’ view, the Privileges or Immunities Clause protects all of the rights set out in the Bill of Rights, as well as some others … but petitioners are unable to identify the Clause’s full scope … Nor is there any consensus on that question among the scholars who agree that the Slaughter-House Cases’ interpretation is flawed …

We see no need to reconsider that interpretation here. For many decades, the question of the rights protected by the Fourteenth Amendment against state infringement has been analyzed under the Due Process Clause of that Amendment and not under the Privileges or Immunities Clause. We therefore decline to disturb the Slaughter-House holding …

In Cruikshank, the Court held that the general “right of the people peaceably to assemble for lawful purposes,” which is protected by the First Amendment, applied only against the Federal Government and not against the States … Nonetheless, over 60 years later the Court held that the right of peaceful assembly was a “fundamental righ[t] … safeguarded by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”. DeJonge v. Oregon (1937). We follow the same path here and thus consider whether the right to keep and bear arms applies to the States under the Due Process Clause …

With this framework in mind, we now turn directly to the question whether the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms is incorporated in the concept of due process. In answering that question, as just explained, we must decide whether the right to keep and bear arms is fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty … or as we have said in a related context, whether this right is “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition,” Washington v. Glucksberg (1997).

Our decision in Heller points unmistakably to the answer. Thus, we concluded, citizens must be permitted “to use [handguns] for the core lawful purpose of self-defense.”

Heller makes it clear that this right is “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.” … Heller explored the right’s origins, noting that the 1689 English Bill of Rights explicitly protected a right to keep arms for self-defense … Blackstone was able to assert that the right to keep and bear arms was “one of the fundamental rights of Englishmen,” …

By the 1850’s, the perceived threat that had prompted the inclusion of the Second Amendment in the Bill of Rights—the fear that the National Government would disarm the universal militia—had largely faded as a popular concern, but the right to keep and bear arms was highly valued for purposes of self-defense …

After the Civil War, many of the over 180,000 African Americans who served in the Union Army returned to the States of the old Confederacy, where systematic efforts were made to disarm them and other blacks …

Throughout the South, armed parties, often consisting of ex-Confederate soldiers serving in the state militias, forcibly took firearms from newly freed slaves. In the first session of the 39th Congress, Senator Wilson told his colleagues: “In Mississippi rebel State forces, men who were in the rebel armies, are traversing the State, visiting the freedmen, disarming them, perpetrating murders and outrages upon them; and the same things are done in other sections of the country.” 39th Cong. Globe 40 (1865) …

Union Army commanders took steps to secure the right of all citizens to keep and bear arms, but the 39th Congress concluded that legislative action was necessary. Its efforts to safeguard the right to keep and bear arms demonstrate that the right was still recognized to be fundamental.

The most explicit evidence of Congress’ aim appears in §14 of the Freedmen’s Bureau Act of 1866, which provided that “the right … to have full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings concerning personal liberty, personal security, and the acquisition, enjoyment, and disposition of estate, real and personal, including the constitutional right to bear arms, shall be secured to and enjoyed by all the citizens … without respect to race or color, or previous condition of slavery.” 14 Stat. 176–177 (emphasis added).

In debating the Fourteenth Amendment, the 39th Congress referred to the right to keep and bear arms as a fundamental right deserving of protection.

In sum, it is clear that the Framers and ratifiers of the Fourteenth Amendment counted the right to keep and bear arms among those fundamental rights necessary to our system of ordered liberty.

Municipal respondents’ remaining arguments are at war with our central holding in Heller: that the Second Amendment protects a personal right to keep and bear arms for lawful purposes, most notably for self-defense within the home. Municipal respondents, in effect, ask us to treat the right recognized in Heller as a second-class right, subject to an entirely different body of rules than the other Bill of Rights guarantees that we have held to be incorporated into the Due Process Clause.

Municipal respondents’ main argument is nothing less than a plea to disregard 50 years of incorporation precedent and return (presumably for this case only) to a bygone era. Municipal respondents submit that the Due Process Clause protects only those rights “ ‘recognized by all temperate and civilized governments, from a deep and universal sense of [their] justice.’ ” …

This line of argument is, of course, inconsistent with the long-established standard we apply in incorporation cases … And the present day implications of municipal respondents’ argument are stunning. For example, many of the rights that our Bill of Rights provides for persons accused of criminal offenses are virtually unique to this country. If our understanding of the right to a jury trial, the right against self-incrimination, and the right to counsel were necessary attributes of any civilized country, it would follow that the United States is the only civilized Nation in the world …

… In Heller, we held that the Second Amendment protects the right to possess a handgun in the home for the purpose of self-defense. Unless considerations of stare decisis counsel otherwise, a provision of the Bill of Rights that protects a right that is fundamental from an American perspective applies equally to the Federal Government and the States … We therefore hold that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the Second Amendment right recognized in Heller.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings.

It is so ordered.

Timbs v. IN (2019)

586 U.S.  ___ (2019)

Opinion: Ginsburg, joined by Roberts, Thomas, Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor, Kagan, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh
Decision: unanimous, reversed
Concurring: Gorsuch
Concurring: Thomas

JUSTICE GINSBURG delivered the opinion of the Court.

Tyson Timbs pleaded guilty in Indiana state court to dealing in a controlled substance and conspiracy to commit theft. The trial court sentenced him to one year of home detention and five years of probation, which included a court-supervised addiction-treatment program. The sentence also required Timbs to pay fees and costs totaling $1,203. At the time of Timbs’s arrest, the police seized his vehicle, a Land Rover SUV Timbs had purchased for about $42,000. Timbs paid for the vehicle with money he received from an insurance policy when his father died. The State engaged a private law firm to bring a civil suit for forfeiture of Timbs’s Land Rover, charging that the vehicle had been used to transport heroin. After Timbs’s guilty plea in the criminal case, the trial court held a hearing on the forfeiture demand. Although finding that Timbs’s vehicle had been used to facilitate violation of a criminal statute, the court denied the requested forfeiture, observing that Timbs had recently purchased the vehicle for $42,000, more than four times the maximum $10,000 monetary fine assessable against him for his drug conviction. Forfeiture of the Land Rover, the court determined, would be grossly disproportionate to the gravity of Timbs’s offense, hence unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause.

The Court of Appeals of Indiana affirmed that determination, but the Indiana Supreme Court reversed. 84 N. E. 3d 1179 (2017). The Indiana Supreme Court did not decide whether the forfeiture would be excessive. Instead, it held that the Excessive Fines Clause constrains only federal action and is inapplicable to state impositions …

The question presented: Is the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause an “incorporated” protection applicable to the States under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause? Like the Eighth Amendment’s proscriptions of “cruel and unusual punishment” and “[e]xcessive bail,” the protection against excessive fines guards against abuses of government’s punitive or criminal law-enforcement authority. This safeguard, we hold, is “fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty,” with “dee[p] root[s] in [our] history and tradition.” … The Excessive Fines Clause is therefore incorporated by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Excessive Fines Clause traces its venerable lineage back to at least 1215, when Magna Carta guaranteed that  “[a] Free-man shall not be amerced for a small fault, but after the manner of the fault; and for a great fault after the greatness thereof, saving to him his contentment. …” …

Today, acknowledgment of the right’s fundamental nature remains widespread. As Indiana itself reports, all 50 States have a constitutional provision prohibiting the imposition of excessive fines either directly or by requiring proportionality … Indeed, Indiana explains that its own Supreme Court has held that the Indiana Constitution should be interpreted to impose the same restrictions as the Eighth Amendment …

For good reason, the protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history: Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties. Excessive fines can be used, for example, to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies … Even absent a political motive, fines may be employed “in a measure out of accord with the penal goals of retribution and deterrence,” for “fines are a source of revenue,” while other forms of punishment “cost a State money.” …

In short, the historical and logical case for concluding that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the Excessive Fines Clause is overwhelming. Protection against excessive punitive economic sanctions secured by the Clause is, to repeat, both “fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty” and “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.” …

The State of Indiana does not meaningfully challenge the case for incorporating the Excessive Fines Clause as a general matter. Instead, the State argues that the Clause does not apply to its use of civil in rem forfeitures because, the State says, the Clause’s specific application to such forfeitures is neither fundamental nor deeply rooted …

As a fallback, Indiana argues that the Excessive Fines Clause cannot be incorporated if it applies to civil in rem forfeitures. We disagree. In considering whether the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates a protection contained in the Bill of Rights, we ask whether the right guaranteed—not each and every particular application of that right—is fundamental or deeply rooted.

Indiana’s suggestion to the contrary is inconsistent with the approach we have taken in cases concerning novel applications of rights already deemed incorporated … regardless of whether application of the Excessive Fines Clause to civil in rem forfeitures is itself fundamental or deeply rooted, our conclusion that the Clause is incorporated remains unchanged.

* * *

For the reasons stated, the judgment of the Indiana Supreme Court is vacated, and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.

Ramos v. Louisiana (2020)

590 U.S. ___ (2020)

Vote: 6-3
Opinion: Gorsuch
Decision: Reversed
Majority: Gorsuch joined by Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, Kavanaugh, Thomas
[Note the majority on this opinion was split differently for different sections of the opinion]
Concurring: Sotomayor
Concurring: Kavanaugh
Concurring: Thomas
Dissent: Alito, joined by Roberts, Kagan (to all but Part III-D)

JUSTICE GORSUCH delivered the opinion of the Court.

Accused of a serious crime, Evangelisto Ramos insisted on his innocence and invoked his right to a jury trial. Eventually, 10 jurors found the evidence against him persuasive. But a pair of jurors believed that the State of Louisiana had failed to prove Mr. Ramos’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt; they voted to acquit.

In 48 States and federal court, a single juror’s vote to acquit is enough to prevent a conviction. But not in Louisiana. Along with Oregon, Louisiana has long punished people based on 10-to-2 verdicts like the one here. So instead of the mistrial he would have received almost anywhere else, Mr. Ramos was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Why do Louisiana and Oregon allow nonunanimous convictions? Though it’s hard to say why these laws persist, their origins are clear. Louisiana first endorsed nonunanimous verdicts for serious crimes at a constitutional convention in 1898. According to one committee chairman, the avowed purpose of that convention was to “establish the supremacy of the white race,” and the resulting document included many of the trappings of the Jim Crow era …

Nor was it only the prospect of African-Americans voting that concerned the delegates. Just a week before the convention, the U. S. Senate passed a resolution calling for an investigation into whether Louisiana was systemically excluding African-Americans from juries. Seeking to avoid unwanted national attention, and aware that this Court would strike down any policy of overt discrimination against African-American jurors as a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, the delegates sought to undermine African-American participation on juries in another way. With a careful eye on racial demographics, the convention delegates sculpted a “facially race-neutral” rule permitting 10-to-2 verdicts in order “to ensure that African-American juror service would be meaningless.”

Adopted in the 1930s, Oregon’s rule permitting nonunanimous verdicts can be similarly traced to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and efforts to dilute “the influence of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities on Oregon juries.” In fact, no one before us contests any of this; courts in both Louisiana and Oregon have frankly acknowledged that race was a motivating factor in the adoption of their States’ respective nonunanimity rules.

We took this case to decide whether the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial—as incorporated against the States by way of the Fourteenth Amendment—requires a unanimous verdict to convict a defendant of a serious offense. Louisiana insists that this Court has never definitively passed on the question and urges us to find its practice consistent with the Sixth Amendment. By contrast, the dissent doesn’t try to defend Louisiana’s law on Sixth or Fourteenth Amendment grounds; tacitly, it seems to admit that the Constitution forbids States from using nonunanimous juries. Yet, unprompted by Louisiana, the dissent suggests our precedent requires us to rule for the State anyway. What explains all this? To answer the puzzle, it’s necessary to say a bit more about the merits of the question presented, the relevant precedent, and, at last, the consequences that follow from saying what we know to be true.

The Sixth Amendment promises that “[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law.” The Amendment goes on to preserve other rights for criminal defendants but says nothing else about what a “trial by an impartial jury” entails.

Still, the promise of a jury trial surely meant something— otherwise, there would have been no reason to write it down. Nor would it have made any sense to spell out the places from which jurors should be drawn if their powers as jurors could be freely abridged by statute. Imagine a constitution that allowed a “jury trial” to mean nothing but a single person rubberstamping convictions without hearing any evidence—but simultaneously insisting that the lone juror come from a specific judicial district “previously ascertained by law.” And if that’s not enough, imagine a constitution that included the same hollow guarantee twice—not only in the Sixth Amendment, but also in Article III. No: The text and structure of the Constitution clearly suggest that the term “trial by an impartial jury” carried with it some meaning about the content and requirements of a jury trial.

One of these requirements was unanimity. Wherever we might look to determine what the term “trial by an impartial jury trial” meant at the time of the Sixth Amendment’s adoption—whether it’s the common law, state practices in the founding era, or opinions and treatises written soon afterward—the answer is unmistakable. A jury must reach a unanimous verdict in order to convict.

The requirement of juror unanimity emerged in 14th century England and was soon accepted as a vital right protected by the common law …

Influential, postadoption treatises confirm this understanding … Justice Story explained in his Commentaries on the Constitution that “in common cases, the law not only presumes every man innocent, until he is proved guilty; but unanimity in the verdict of the jury is indispensable.” Similar statements can be found in American legal treatises throughout the 19th century.

Nor is this a case where the original public meaning was lost to time and only recently recovered. This Court has, repeatedly and over many years, recognized that the Sixth Amendment requires unanimity. As early as 1898, the Court said that a defendant enjoys a “constitutional right to demand that his liberty should not be taken from him except by the joint action of the court and the unanimous verdict of a jury of twelve persons.” A few decades later, the Court elaborated that the Sixth Amendment affords a right to “a trial by jury as understood and applied at common law, … includ[ing] all the essential elements as they were recognized in this country and England when the Constitution was adopted.” And, the Court observed, this includes a requirement “that the verdict should be unanimous.” In all, this Court has commented on the Sixth Amendment’s unanimity requirement no fewer than 13 times over more than 120 years.

There can be no question either that the Sixth Amendment’s unanimity requirement applies to state and federal criminal trials equally. This Court has long explained that the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial is “fundamental to the American scheme of justice” and incorporated against the States under the Fourteenth Amendment. This Court has long explained, too, that incorporated provisions of the Bill of Rights bear the same content when asserted against States as they do when asserted against the federal government. So if the Sixth Amendment’s right to a jury trial requires a unanimous verdict to support a conviction in federal court, it requires no less in state court.

If Louisiana’s path to an affirmance is a difficult one, the dissent’s is trickier still. The dissent doesn’t dispute that the Sixth Amendment protects the right to a unanimous jury verdict, or that the Fourteenth Amendment extends this right to state-court trials. But, it insists, we must affirm Mr. Ramos’s conviction anyway. Why? Because the doctrine of stare decisis supposedly commands it. There are two independent reasons why that answer falls short.

In the first place and as we’ve seen, not even Louisiana tries to suggest that Apodaca supplies a governing precedent. Remember, Justice Powell agreed that the Sixth Amendment requires a unanimous verdict to convict, so he would have no objection to that aspect of our holding today. Justice Powell reached a different result only by relying on a dual-track theory of incorporation that a majority of the Court had already rejected (and continues to reject). And to accept that reasoning as precedential, we would have to embrace a new and dubious proposition: that a single Justice writing only for himself has the authority to bind this Court to propositions it has already rejected.

This is not the rule, and for good reason—it would do more to destabilize than honor precedent. To see how, consider a hypothetical. Suppose we face a question of first  impression under the Fourth Amendment: whether a State must obtain a warrant before reading a citizen’s email in the hands of an Internet provider and using that email as evidence in a criminal trial. Imagine this question splits the Court, with four Justices finding the Fourth Amendment requires a warrant and four Justices finding no such requirement. The ninth Justice agrees that the Fourth Amendment requires a warrant, but takes an idiosyncratic view of the consequences of violating that right. In her view, the exclusionary rule has gone too far, and should only apply when the defendant is prosecuted for a felony. Because the case before her happens to involve only a misdemeanor, she provides the ninth vote to affirm a conviction based on evidence secured by a warrantless search. Of course, this Court has longstanding precedent requiring the suppression of all evidence obtained in unconstitutional searches and seizures. But like Justice Powell, our hypothetical ninth Justice sticks to her view and expressly rejects this Court’s precedent. Like Justice Powell, this Justice’s vote would be essential to the judgment. So if, as the dissent suggests, that is enough to displace precedent, would Mapp’s exclusionary rule now be limited to felony prosecutions? …

In the final accounting, the dissent’s stare decisis arguments round to zero. We have an admittedly mistaken decision, on a constitutional issue, an outlier on the day it was decided, one that’s become lonelier with time. In arguing otherwise, the dissent must elide the reliance the American people place in their constitutionally protected liberties, overplay the competing interests of two States, count some of those interests twice, and make no small amount of new precedent all its own.

On what ground would anyone have us leave Mr. Ramos in prison for the rest of his life? Not a single Member of this Court is prepared to say Louisiana secured his conviction constitutionally under the Sixth Amendment. No one before us suggests that the error was harmless. Louisiana does not claim precedent commands an affirmance. In the end, the best anyone can seem to muster against Mr. Ramos is that, if we dared to admit in his case what we all know to be true about the Sixth Amendment, we might have to say the same in some others. But where is the justice in that?  Every judge must learn to live with the fact he or she will make some mistakes; it comes with the territory. But it is something else entirely to perpetuate something we all know to be wrong only because we fear the consequences of being right.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals is



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Civil Rights and Liberties Copyright © 2023 by Rorie Spill Solberg is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.