U.S. Supreme Court restricts ‘electors’ in presidential contests

By Andrew Chung and Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to free “electors” in the complex Electoral College system that decides the U.S. presidency from state laws that use penalties to force them to support the candidate who prevails in the state’s popular vote.

The justices unanimously declined to endorse the discretionary power of electors just months before the Nov. 3 presidential election. The justices ruled in favor of Washington state and Colorado, which had imposed penalties on several so-called faithless electors who defied pledges in 2016 to vote for the winner of their states’ popular vote, Democrat Hillary Clinton.

State officials have said faithless electors threaten the integrity of American democracy by subverting the will of the electorate and opening the door to corruption. The plaintiffs said the Constitution requires them to exercise independent judgment to prevent unfit candidates from taking office.

“The Constitution’s text and the nation’s history both support allowing a state to enforce an elector’s pledge to support his party’s nominee – and the state voters’ choice – for President,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote on behalf of the court.

Under the system set out in the U.S. Constitution in the 18th century, the winner of a presidential election is determined not by amassing a majority in the national popular vote but by securing a majority of electoral votes allotted to the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.

In 2016, 10 of the 538 electors cast ballots for someone other then their state’s popular vote winner, an unusually high number that could have changed the outcome of five of the 58 previous U.S. presidential elections.

The justices on Monday upheld a decision by the Washington state Supreme Court that had found the $1,000 fines against three faithless electors to be lawful and did not violate the Constitution’s provisions that spell out the Electoral College process.

The justices also reversed a 2019 ruling by the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals against Colorado’s cancellation of a faithless elector’s vote. Justice Sonia Sotomayor did not participate in the Colorado case.

Republican President Donald Trump, who defeated Clinton by a margin of 304 to 227 Electoral College votes despite losing the popular vote nationally by about 3 million votes, is seeking re-election against Democratic candidate Joe Biden.

In the Electoral College vote held weeks after the general election, the electors – typically party loyalists – cast their ballots to formally determine the election’s winner. Colorado and Washington state are among the 48 states – only Maine and Nebraska excepted – with winner-takes-all systems awarding all electors to the candidate who wins the state’s popular vote.

Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia have laws intended to control how electors vote. Only a handful enforce them with penalties.

The two lead plaintiffs in the cases decided on Monday, Bret Chiafalo and Micheal Baca, were Democratic electors who sought to persuade Republican electors to disregard their pledges and help deny Trump the presidency. They cast their ballots for moderate Republicans and not Clinton even though she won the popular vote in both states.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York and Lawrence Hurley in Washington; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. Supreme Court strikes down Louisiana abortion clinic restrictions

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday defended abortion rights by striking down a Louisiana law placing restrictions on doctors who perform the procedure, dealing a blow to anti-abortion advocates.

The 5-4 ruling, with conservative Chief Justice John Roberts joining the four liberals justices in the majority, represented a major victory for Shreveport-based abortion provider Hope Medical Group for Women in its challenge to the 2014 law. The measure had required doctors who perform abortions to have a sometimes difficult-to-obtain formal affiliation called “admitting privileges” at a hospital within 30 miles (48 km) of the clinic.

Anti-abortion advocates had hoped that the Supreme Court, with its 5-4 conservative majority, would be willing to permit abortion restrictions like those being pursued by Louisiana and other conservative states.

The decision, authored by liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, marked the second time in four years that the court ruled against an “admitting privileges” requirement.

In 2016, the court struck down a Republican-backed Texas law that mandated admitting privileges and required clinics to have costly hospital-grade facilities, finding that the restrictions represented an impermissible “undue burden” on a woman’s ability to obtain an abortion.

Several other cases involving legal challenges to abortion restrictions in other states are heading toward the justices that could provide other avenues for its conservative majority to roll back access to the procedure.

Two of Louisiana’s three clinics that perform abortions would have been forced to close if the law went into effect, according to lawyers for Hope Medical Group.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

Trump: will submit ‘enhanced papers’ on U.S. Supreme Court immigration decision

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Friday said his administration will make a filing on “Dreamer” immigrants who are in the United States illegally but entered as children, without providing details, to address the Supreme Court’s ruling he broke federal procedure law in ending a program shielding them from deportation.

“The Supreme Court asked us to resubmit on DACA, nothing was lost or won. They ‘punted’, much like in a football game (where hopefully they would stand for our great American Flag). We will be submitting enhanced papers shortly in order to properly fulfil[l] the Supreme Court’s ruling & request of yesterday,” Trump wrote on Twitter, referring to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy.

Trump did not explain what he meant by “enhanced papers.” The highest court in the country left the door open for Trump to attempt again to rescind the program, ruling only that the administration had not met a procedural requirement and its actions were “arbitrary and capricious” under a federal law called the Administrative Procedure Act.

Ken Cuccinelli, the Department of Homeland Security acting deputy secretary, on Friday said the department would “move as quickly as possible” to present Trump with various executive options he could take.

“That still leaves open the appropriate solution, which the Supreme Court mentioned, and that is that Congress step up to the plate,” he told Fox News in an interview shortly before Trump’s tweet.

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert and Susan Heavey, Editing by Franklin Paul and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. Supreme Court blocks Trump bid to end ‘Dreamers’ immigrant program

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday dealt President Donald Trump a major setback on his hardline immigration policies, blocking his bid to end a program that protects from deportation hundreds of thousands of immigrants – often called “Dreamers” – who entered the United States illegally as children.

The justices on a 5-4 vote upheld lower court rulings that found that Trump’s 2017 move to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, created in 2012 by his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama, was unlawful.

Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts joined the court’s four liberals in finding that the administration’s actions were “arbitrary and capricious” under a federal law called the Administrative Procedure Act.

The ruling means that the roughly 649,000 immigrants, mostly young Hispanic adults born in Mexico and other Latin American countries, currently enrolled in DACA will remain protected from deportation and eligible to obtain renewable two-year work permits.

The ruling does not prevent Trump from trying again to end the program. But his administration is unlikely to be able to end DACA before the Nov. 3 election in which Trump is seeking a second four-year term in office.

“We do not decide whether DACA or its rescission are sound policies. We address only whether the agency complied with the procedural requirement that it provide a reasoned explanation for its action,” Roberts wrote.

The ruling marks the second time this week that Roberts has ruled against Trump in a major case following Monday’s decision finding that gay and transgender workers are protected under federal employment law. [L1N2DS0VW]

“These horrible & politically charged decisions coming out of the Supreme Court are shotgun blasts into the face of people that are proud to call themselves Republicans or Conservatives,” Trump wrote on Twitter after the DACA ruling.

The court’s four other conservatives including two Trump appointees, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, dissented.

“Today’s decision must be recognized for what it is: an effort to avoid a politically controversial but legally correct decision,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in dissent.

Thomas, whose dissent was joined by Gorsuch and Justice Samuel Alito, said DACA itself was “substantively unlawful.”

Trump’s administration has argued that Obama exceeded his constitutional powers when he created DACA by executive action, bypassing Congress.

A collection of states including California and New York, people currently enrolled in DACA and civil rights groups all filed suit to block Trump’s plan to end the program. Lower courts in California, New York and the District of Columbia ruled against Trump and left DACA in place, finding that his move to revoke the program violated the Administrative Procedure Act.

Only one justice, liberal Sonia Sotamayor, embraced arguments made by plaintiffs that the policy may have been motivated by discriminatory bias against immigrants. Sotamayor is the court’s first Hispanic justice.

Trump has made his crackdown on legal and illegal immigration, including pursuing construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, a central part of his presidency and his 2020 re-election campaign.

‘I FEEL CONTENT’

DACA recipients and their supporters in Congress including House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and in the business community welcomed the ruling and called for permanent protections to be enacted.

“I feel content. I think the decision was what we deserved, but at the same time I am also thinking we still have to defend the program,” said Melody Klingenfuss, a 26-year-old DACA recipient and organizer with the California Dream Network.

Roberts a year ago also cast the decisive vote in a Supreme Court loss for the Republican president when the justices blocked Trump’s administration from adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census that critics said was an effort to dissuade immigrants from taking part in the decennial population count. That case raised similar questions about whether Trump’s administration followed lawful procedures in a reaching policy decision.

Immigrants had to meet certain conditions to qualify for DACA enrollment such as not being convicted of a felony or significant misdemeanor and being enrolled in high school or having a high school diploma or equivalent.

Government figures show that upwards of 95 percent of current enrollees were born in Latin America, including 80 percent from Mexico, followed by El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Nearly half live in California and Texas. The average age of DACA enrollees is 26.

Obama created the DACA program after Congress failed to pass bipartisan legislation that would have overhauled U.S. immigration policy and offered protections for the immigrants known as “Dreamers,” a moniker derived from the name of an immigration bill.

The young immigrants for whom the program was devised, Obama said, were raised and educated in the United States, grew up as Americans and often know little about their countries of origin. After Thursday’s ruling, Obama wrote on Twitter, “We may look different and come from everywhere, but what makes us American are our shared ideals.”

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Ted Hesson, Kristina Cooke Andrew Chung and Jan Wolfe; Editing by Will Dunham)

In landmark ruling, U.S. Supreme Court bars discrimination against LGBT workers

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday delivered a watershed victory for LGBT rights and a defeat for President Donald Trump’s administration by ruling that a longstanding federal law barring workplace discrimination protects gay and transgender employees.

The landmark 6-3 ruling represented the biggest moment for LGBT rights in the United States since the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in 2015. Two conservative justices joined the court’s four liberals in the decision: Neil Gorsuch, a 2017 Trump appointee who wrote the ruling, and Chief Justice John Roberts.

The justices decided that gay and transgender people are protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex as well as race, color, national origin and religion.

Workplace bias against gay and transgender employees had remained legal in much of the country, with 28 U.S. states lacking comprehensive measures against employment discrimination. The ruling – in two gay rights cases from Georgia and New York and a transgender rights case from Michigan – recognizes new worker protections in federal law.

“The Supreme Court’s historic decision affirms what shouldn’t have even been a debate: LGBTQ Americans should be able to work without fear of losing jobs because of who they are,” said Sarah Kate Ellis, president of the gay rights group GLAAD.

The legal fight focused on the definition of “sex” in Title VII. The plaintiffs, along with civil rights groups and many large companies, had argued that discriminating against gay and transgender workers was inherently based on their sex and consequently was illegal.

Trump’s administration had backed the employers who were sued for discrimination. The administration and the employers argued that Congress did not intend for Title VII to protect gay and transgender people when it passed the law. Gorsuch conceded that point in his opinion but said what mattered was the text of the law.

“An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex,” Gorsuch wrote. “Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.”

Strongly supported by evangelical Christian voters, Trump has taken actions that have undermined gay and transgender rights since taking office in 2017.

Conservative Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh dissented from the ruling. Writing in dissent, Alito said the court had basically re-written the law.

“There is only one word for what the court has done today: legislation,” Alito wrote.

‘TREATED FAIRLY’

The court ruled in two consolidated cases about gay people who have said they were fired due to their sexual orientation. One involved a former county child welfare services coordinator from Georgia named Gerald Bostock. The other involved a New York skydiving instructor named Donald Zarda who died after the litigation began, with the matter then pursued by his estate.

The court also ruled in a case that involved a transgender funeral director named Aimee Stephens fired by a Detroit funeral home after revealing plans to transition from male to female. Stephens died in May. Stephens’ wife Donna is now representing the estate.

“I am grateful for this victory to honor the legacy of Aimee, and to ensure people are treated fairly regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” Donna Stephens said in a statement.

Gorsuch wrote that “there is no way an employer can discriminate against those who check the homosexual or transgender box without discriminating in part because of an applicant’s sex.”

“By discriminating against homosexuals, the employer intentionally penalizes men for being attracted to men and women for being attracted to women. By discriminating against transgender persons, the employer unavoidably discriminates against persons with one sex identified at birth and another today,” Gorsuch wrote.

The Human Rights Campaign gay rights group called the decision “a landmark victory for LGBTQ equality.”

Alphonso David, the group’s president, said, “No one should be denied a job or fired simply because of who they are or whom they love.”

The White House had no immediate comment.

Trump’s Justice Department reversed the government’s position taken under Democratic former President Barack Obama that Title VII covered sexual orientation and gender identity.

Trump’s administration last week issued a rule that would lift anti-discrimination protections for transgender people in healthcare.

His administration also has backed the right of certain businesses to refuse to serve gay people on the basis of religious objections to gay marriage, banned most transgender service members from the military and rescinded protections on bathroom access for transgender students in public schools.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley in Washington; Additional reporting by Andrew Chung in New York; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. Supreme Court declines to hear gun rights cases

By Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to take up a series of new cases seeking to expand gun rights.

The court rejected a total of 10 different cases that had piled up at the court in recent months. Two justices, conservatives Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh, said they would have heard one of the cases, a dispute from New Jersey over that state’s concealed carry gun permits.

In the New Jersey case, the justices left in place a lower court ruling that threw out a lawsuit challenging the state’s law mandating that people who want to carry handguns in public must show they have a special reason before they can get a permit.

Other cases the court declined to take up included challenges to assault weapon bans in Massachusetts and Cook County, Illinois, a jurisdiction that includes Chicago. The court also turned down cases similar to the New Jersey dispute from Massachusetts and Maryland.

The high court’s action comes on the heels of its April 27 decision to dismiss a National Rifle Association-backed challenge to now-repealed New York City restrictions on handgun owners transporting their firearms outside the home.

The move sidestepped a major ruling over the scope of the right to bear arms under the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment.

The New York case was the first gun rights dispute the court had heard in almost a decade, with gun control activists fearful the court will further expand the right to bear arms.

The decision by the justices not to take up any of the 10 other cases shows that the court, which has a 5-4 conservative majority, remains hesitant about wading into gun rights issues.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. Supreme Court justices worry about ‘chaos’ in Electoral College dispute

By Andrew Chung and Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Supreme Court justices on Wednesday grilled lawyers advocating that “electors” in the complex Electoral College system that decides the winner of U.S. presidential elections are free to disregard laws directing them to back the candidate who prevails in their state’s popular vote.

If enough electors do so, it could upend an election, or, as some of the justices said, cause “chaos.”

The justices heard arguments in two closely watched cases – one from Colorado and one from Washington state – less than six months before the Nov. 3 election in which presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden challenges Republican President Donald Trump.

The justices also expressed concern over maintaining states’ ability to remove electors who have been bribed to vote for a particular candidate. On the other hand, the justices also pressed attorneys for Colorado and Washington state whether there are any limits on state powers seeking to control how electors vote.

The litigation involves the presidential election system set out in the U.S. Constitution in which the winner is determined not by amassing a majority in the national popular vote but by securing a majority of electoral votes allotted to the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.

The cases involve so-called faithless electors who did not vote for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Electoral College even though she won the popular vote in their states.

Colorado and Washington state are among the 48 states – only Maine and Nebraska excepted – with winner-takes-all systems awarding all electors to the candidate who wins the state’s popular vote. The justices must decide if states can penalize faithless electors with actions such as monetary fines or removal from the role.

Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia have laws intended to control how electors vote. Only a handful enforce them with penalties.

Conservative Justice Samuel Alito wondered whether giving electors free reign “would lead to chaos” in instances in which an election is very close and “the rational response of the losing political party … would be to launch a massive campaign to try to influence electors.”

Conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh asked whether the court should embrace the “avoid-chaos principle of judging, which suggests that if it’s a close call or a tie-breaker we shouldn’t facilitate or create chaos.”

Lawyer Lawrence Lessig, representing the Washington state electors, conceded that was a possibility.

Conservative Justice Clarence Thomas told a lawyer representing Colorado’s electors that a despite a promise to support the popular-vote winner an elector “can suddenly say, ‘I’m going to vote for Frodo Baggins,'” referring to the character from the fantasy novel Lord of the Rings.

The Electoral College vote, held weeks after the general election, is often overlooked as a mere formality in which the electors – typically party loyalists – actually vote for the winner of their state’s popular vote.

But in 2016, 10 of the 538 electors voted for someone else. While that number of so-called faithless electors did not change the election’s outcome, it would have in five of the 58 previous U.S. presidential elections.

State officials have said faithless electors threaten the integrity of American democracy by subverting the will of the electorate and opening the door to corruption. The plaintiffs said the Constitution requires them to exercise independent judgment to prevent unfit candidates from taking office.

“It’s somewhat hard to understand the concept of something I am pledged – bound – to do. I have made a promise to do something. But that promise is unenforceable,” liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said.

Trump’s administration has taken no stance in the cases.

Chiafalo and another lead plaintiff Micheal Baca were Democratic electors who sought to persuade Republican electors to disregard their pledges and help deny Trump the presidency. Baca, who now lives in Las Vegas, was a Colorado elector. They cast their ballots for moderate Republicans and not Clinton.

Chiafalo was fined $1,000 by Washington state. Baca’s vote was canceled by Colorado officials. The electors argued that the penalties against them by their states violated the Constitution’s Article II and its 12th Amendment, which delineate the Electoral College process.

A lower court upheld Washington state’s fine against Chiafalo and two other faithless electors. Another court concluded that Colorado’s action against Baca violated his constitutional rights.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York and Lawrence Hurley in Washington; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. Supreme Court wrestles with Obamacare contraception case

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Supreme Court justices grappled on Wednesday with whether President Donald Trump’s administration went too far in allowing employers to obtain broad religious and moral exemptions from an Obamacare requirement that health insurance that they provide employees covers women’s birth control.

At issue is a challenge by the states of Pennsylvania and New Jersey to the administration’s 2018 rule that permits broad religious and moral exemptions to the contraception mandate of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare, and expands accommodations already allowed.

The justices held their third day of arguments by teleconference of the week, a new format prompted by the coronavirus pandemic. Liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg took part a day after being hospitalized to undergo treatment for a benign gall bladder condition.

Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, a potential pivotal vote, appeared frustrated that the long-running litigation, a version of which previously reached the Supreme Court in 2016, has not led to a compromise.

“Is it really the case that there is no way to resolve those differences?” Roberts asked.

Roberts wondered if the administration’s approach was too broad by providing exemptions even to entities that had not complained about the adequacy of previous accommodations devised under Trump’s Democratic predecessor Barack Obama.

Liberal Justices Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer appeared to favor a similar approach.

“I don’t understand why this can’t be worked out,” Breyer said.

The contraceptive mandate under the law, which was signed by Obama in 2010 and has faced Republican efforts to repeal it ever since, requires that employer-provided health insurance include coverage for birth control with no co-payment. Previously, many employer-provided insurance policies did not offer this coverage.

Ginsburg, at 87 the court’s oldest member, participated in the argument from Baltimore after being hospitalized for non-surgical treatment for an infection arising from a gallstone in her cystic duct.

‘NO HASSLE’

Sometimes sounding hesitant and at other times sounding firm, Ginsburg asked three rounds of questions starting with a query to Solicitor General Noel Francisco, who was arguing for the administration. Ginsburg told Francisco that Trump’s administration had “tossed entirely to the wind what Congress considered to be essential, that women be provided this service, with no hassle and no cost to them.”

The administration has asked the court, which has a 5-4 conservative majority, to reverse a nationwide injunction issued by a lower court blocking the rule.

Both of Trump’s appointees, conservative Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, asked questions indicating sympathy toward the administration’s view that it has broad leeway under Obamacare to decide the scope of exemptions.

Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s questions, like those posed by Ginsburg, indicated they are leaning toward the states.

The administration is joined in the litigation by the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Roman Catholic order of nuns that is one of the groups seeking an exemption for its employees. Under a separate court ruling, the group already has an exemption to the mandate.

Conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, who ordinarily remains silent during arguments, again asked questions as he has done each day this week under the new format.

Rules implemented under Obama exempted religious entities from the mandate and a further accommodation was created for religiously affiliated nonprofit employers, which some groups including the Little Sisters of the Poor objected to as not going far enough.

The blocked Trump rule would allow any nonprofit or for-profit employer, including publicly traded companies, to seek an exemption on religious grounds. A moral objection can be made by nonprofits and companies that are not publicly traded. The Trump administration exemption also would be available for religiously affiliated universities that provide health insurance to students.

The legal question is whether Trump’s administration had the legal authority to expand the exemption under both the Obamacare law itself and another federal law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which allows people to press religious claims against the federal government.

The justices addressed the question of religious accommodations to the Obamacare contraception mandate once before. In 2016, they sidestepped a decision on previous rules issued under Obama, sending the dispute back to lower courts.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. Supreme Court sidesteps major gun rights ruling

By Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday dismissed a challenge to New York City restrictions on handgun owners transporting their firearms outside the home, meaning the justices for now will not be wading into the battle over the scope of the right to bear arms under the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment.

The justices threw out the dispute at hand because the measure that was challenged by individual gun owners and the state’s National Rifle Association affiliate was rolled back by the city last July, rendering the case moot. The city had asked the Supreme Court not to hear the matter. The justices went ahead and heard arguments on Dec. 2 but ultimately agreed with the city.

The case was sent back to lower courts to determine whether the gun owners may seek damages or press claims that the amended law still infringes their rights. Justice Samuel Alito, in a dissent joined by fellow conservative Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, said the case was not moot and that the city’s law ran afoul of the Second Amendment.

Although the New York case will no longer be decided, there are other challenges to gun regulations pending at the court. Conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh, while agreeing the current dispute is moot, said in a concurring opinion that the court “should address that issue soon.”

President Donald Trump’s administration had supported the NRA and the gun owners in the case. The powerful lobby group is closely aligned with U.S. conservatives and Republicans including Trump.

Gun control proponents had feared that the justices would use the case to widen gun rights by either extending the right to possess firearms for self-defense beyond the home or by creating a strict standard that would force lower courts to cast a skeptical eye on new or existing gun control laws.

Such a ruling could have threatened a wide array of gun control measures nationwide such as expanded background checks for gun buyers and “red flag” laws targeting the firearms of people deemed dangerous by the courts, according to these advocates.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York and Lawrence Hurley in Washington; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. Supreme Court requires unanimous jury verdicts for serious crimes

By Lawrence Hurley

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Monday that the constitutional guarantee of trial by jury requires a unanimous verdict in serious crimes, siding with a Louisiana man convicted of murder and paving the way for potentially hundreds of defendants found guilty by divided juries to receive new trials.

Only two of the 50 states, Louisiana and Oregon, have permitted non-unanimous verdicts. Writing for the court in the 6-3 ruling, conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch noted that the non-unanimous verdict requirement in both states traced back to past racist policies intended to reduce the power of non-white jurors to influence the outcome of trials.

The ruling, overturning a 1972 Supreme Court precedent, means that Evangelisto Ramos, who was convicted by a 12-member jury on a 10-2 vote, is likely to get a new trial. Ramos, found guilty in the 2014 New Orleans murder of a woman named Trinece Fedison whose body was found in a trash can, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The justices concluded that the U.S. Constitution’s Sixth Amendment, which guarantees the right to an impartial trial, requires that jurors be unanimous to convict in serious criminal cases. Gorsuch noted that historically some minor crimes do not require a jury trial.

Louisiana updated its law to prohibit non-unanimous verdicts starting last year but that change did not apply retroactively.

The ruling could benefit hundreds of inmates convicted with non-unanimous verdicts in Louisiana and Oregon by leading to new trials.

“We are heartened that the court has held, once and for all, that the promise of the Sixth Amendment fully applies in Louisiana, rejecting any concept of second-class justice,” said Ben Cohen, a lawyer for Ramos.

Gorsuch said there is evidence that when the Sixth Amendment was enacted, it was assumed there must be a unanimous verdict.

“This court has repeatedly and over many years recognized that the Sixth Amendment requires unanimity,” Gorsuch wrote.

Two other conservative justices, Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh, joined Gorsuch and three liberal justices – Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor – in the majority.

A 1972 Supreme Court ruling that state court juries did not have to be unanimous drove the divisions among the justices in the case. The majority voted to overrule that precedent, but the three dissenting justices said there was not a compelling reason to overturn it.

Writing in dissent, conservative Justice Samuel Alito wrote that the ruling “imposes a potentially crushing burden on the courts and criminal justice systems” in Louisiana and Oregon.

Liberal Justice Elena Kagan and conservative Chief Justice John Roberts also were in dissent.

How the court addresses overturning its own precedents is a topic of contention, with high stakes for abortion rights.

Abortion rights activists fear that the court’s 5-4 conservative majority may seek to undermine or overturn its landmark 1973 ruling that legalized the procedure nationwide. The court is currently weighing a challenge to Louisiana abortion restrictions that could indicate which way it is heading, with a ruling due by the end of June.

(Reporting by Will Dunham)