Two recent Supreme Court decisions provide an excellent example of how case law develops in the United States and when decisions have retroactive application.

We’ll first the 2020 decision in Ramos v. Louisiana, and then summarize the Supreme Court’s 2021 decision in Edwards v. Vannoy.

The Supreme Court’s 2020 Decision in Ramos v. Louisiana

In 2020 the Supreme Court decided a case called Ramos v. Louisiana. The issue in that case was whether it was Constitutional for a jury to convict a defendant of a serious crime by a non-unanimous vote.

Juries in criminal cases typically have 12 members. For a number of years, Louisiana and Oregon allowed non-unanimous jury convictions in criminal cases – – that is, if at least ten jury members voted to convict, a defendant would be guilty of the crime even if two jury members voted Not Guilty.

The Supreme Court held, in Ramos v. Louisiana, that it was unconstitutional for states to convict defendants by non-unanimous jury verdicts. The video on the right summarizes the decision.

The Issue in Edwards v. Vannoy: Should Courts Apply the Rule from Ramos Retroactively?

One obvious question raised by the decision in Ramos v. Louisiana was whether the decision applied retroactively – –  could prisoners who had already been convicted and sentenced rely on this decision if they had already exhausted their appeals? That is, would Ramos v. Louisiana be of any help to a prisoner who had been convicted years ago by a non-unanimous jury verdict, if the inmate had already filed all the appeals that he could file without success? Should the courts overturn his conviction?

The type of relief that the inmate who had already exhausted his appeals would likely seek is sometimes called federal collateral review. Federal collateral review is where a federal court reviews the Constitutionality of a state court decision.

Courts distinguish between collateral review and direct review.  A defendant convicted in a state trial court appeals first to a state appellate court – – that is direct review. Collateral review is different from direct review because it is “outside” the normal appellate process. The defendant asks the federal court to review the Constitutionality of the state court decision.

The 2021 decision in Edwards v. Vannoy held that the rule in Ramos v. Louisiana does not apply retroactively. The video on the right summarizes the decision: inmates convicted by non-unanimous verdicts who have exhausted their appeals may not ask federal courts to overturn their convictions.

Why did a Majority on the Supreme Court Hold that Ramos did not Apply Retroactively?

Holding that Ramos v. Louisiana did not apply retroactively, the Supreme Court distinguished between procedural and substantive changes in the law.

The general rule is that procedural changes in criminal law do not apply retroactively. According to the Supreme Court, requiring unanimous jury verdicts, and prohibiting non-unanimous jury convictions, is merely a procedural change because it only changes the way in which a defendant is convicted. The Supreme Court, in Ramos, did not abolish or change a criminal law – – the Court’s decision in Ramos only changed how a person can be convicted for a crime. Therefore, this was a procedural change and there should be no retroactive application.

There are some exceptions where a procedural change could potentially apply retroactively. The Supreme Court has left open the possibility that some changes in procedural rules can be so profound – –  a watershed change based on principles of fundamental fairness – – that the procedural change would apply retroactively. But requiring a non-unanimous jury verdict did not satisfy this criterion. Ramos v. Louisiana does not apply retroactively so federal courts cannot review convictions where inmates have exhausted their appeals.