The Supreme Court and the Flawed Search for Justice

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Authority of Law Statue, in front of Supreme Court building, Washington. Photo by Matt Wade via Flickr

It’s hard to believe practically anything else is still occurring during the coronavirus crisis. But while most of us are sitting at home, the wheels of justice still turn – albeit as slowly as ever.

In April, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its ruling on a caseRamos v. Louisiana, that had been working its way through the system for several years.

The case dealt with an old practice in Louisiana that allowed defendants to be sentenced for serious crimes by non-unanimous juries. The law dated back to the post-Civil War era and was implemented intentionally with the goal of watering down the presence of black jurors.

Only two states allowed the practice, Louisiana and Oregon, and the racist intentions of the statutes were never in question. Until a few years ago, Florida had a similar law, even allowing death sentences by hung juries.

Their state supreme court overturned the statute in 2016, but recently reversed itself. (Shall we say “yikes”?)

Fortunately, the Supreme Court has (finally) intervened, ruling 6-3 that the practice is unconstitutional. The Court found that non-unanimous juries violate both the Sixth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendments’ guarantees of an impartial jury and equal protection under the law.

While we should be glad that this perversion of justice will no longer be allowed to continue, there’s still cause for condemnation.

Let’s be clear: It took the U.S. government over a hundred years to uphold its own Constitution and protect the natural rights of its citizens. During that time, thousands of people lost their lives. Even now, hundreds of people currently incarcerated by non-unanimous juries are left in limbo waiting to see what will become of their sentences in the wake of the verdict.

They still have cause for concern.

It can take years for a case to work its way out of the system. Even when there is significant evidence of innocence, malpractice, or constitutional violations in a case, there is no telling how quickly (or if) the appellate process will work. Whether or not those sentenced by non-unanimous juries will be released, get new trials, or have their sentences commuted remains to be seen.

The battle is far from over for these men and women, many of whom are likely innocent.

Aside from these massive casualties and civil rights violations, there are still other causes for concern.

Not only did it take over a century to obtain this verdict, the verdict itself was still not unanimous. That’s a symptom of a sick system.

We’re talking about a law that is so blatantly unconstitutional and unjust, so flagrantly biased and corrupt, that no one even attempts to defend its malfeasance. And yet, three justices of the U.S. Supreme Court did not vote to overturn it. Why is that?

Legal precedent.

For scholars of the law there are a few competing schools of thought.

Originalists believe that judges should attempt to interpret the law as it was intended when it was written. They form their opinions on modern legal questions in this manner and vote to remove laws that conflict with our nation’s original code. Former U.S. Justice Antonin Scalia was of this persuasion.

Those who believe in a “living constitution” make decisions based on what they believe the law should be. They tend to think that our constitution, as written, is flawed, and they seek to reform our laws by ruling in a way meant to advance modern values. Ruth Bader Ginsberg would be in this camp.

And lastly, there are those devoted to legal precedent. Essentially, this line of thinking defers to previous legal rulings in a manner so as not to disrupt the system or cause citizens to question the validity of other court decisions. It is to this last group that we owe the three No votes on Ramos.

In this, the U.S. Court has signaled that it is still overly deferential to legal precedent in making its decisions. This is an ominous and deeply disappointing signal as there is a lot of very bad legal precedent in this country that should be overturned.

And if it is this difficult to obtain a verdict on a law that is so openly racist and wrong, just imagine how low the odds are that the country will begin to truly reckon with the hundreds of other constitutional violations currently strangling the justice system.

Hannah Cox

Hannah Cox

We did not become the world’s largest incarcerator overnight or by accident. Our current predicament is the direct result of bad laws and a system not doing its job to strike them. The Supreme Court has signaled once again that it doesn’t have the teeth to really dig into the mess we’ve made.

And a court without the teeth to defend basic civil liberties and natural rights is a pretty worthless court.

Additional Reading: How to Prevent the Justice ‘Meat-Grinder’ From Making Juries Extinct,” by James Doyle, The Crime Report. May 4, 2020

Hannah Cox is the National Manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. Hannah was previously Director of Outreach for the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank. Prior to that, she was Director of Development for the Tennessee Firearms Association and a policy advocate for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

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