Supreme Court Limits Retroactive Application of its Criminal Procedure Decisions

In Edwards v. Vonnoy the U.S. Supreme Court held 6-3 that no new rules of criminal procedure apply retroactively on federal collateral review. For this reason the Supreme Court’s holding in Ramos v. Louisiana (2020), that state court jury verdicts for convictions of serious crimes must be unanimous, does not apply retroactively to cases on federal collateral review. Before Ramos was decided only Louisiana and Oregon allowed nonunanimous juries.

In 2007 Thedrick Edwards was convicted of kidnapping, sexual assault, and robbery by a nonunanimous Louisiana jury and sentenced to life in imprisonment without parole. By 2011 Edwards had exhausted his first round of appeals meaning he was only able to challenge his conviction on “collateral review.” Before the Supreme Court Edwards argued that Ramos applies retroactively to overturn final convictions on federal collateral review.

New substantive criminal rules alter “the range of conduct or the class of persons that the law punishes.” They apply to cases pending in trial courts and on their first appeal—direct review, and retroactively on federal collateral review. The parties agree the Court’s holding in Ramos requiring unanimous juries in state court was procedural and not substantive.  

New criminal procedural rules alter “only the manner of determining the defendant’s culpability.” They apply to cases pending in trial courts and on direct review. In Teague v. Lane (1989), the Court held that a new procedural rule applies retroactively on federal collateral review only if it constitutes a “watershed” rule.

The Court, in an opinion written by Justice Kavanaugh, rejected Edwards’ argument that the right to a unanimous jury is a watershed rule given the significance of the right, that is relies on the original meaning of the constitution, and that it may prevent racial discrimination. According to the Court, it “has already considered and rejected those kinds of arguments in prior retroactivity case.”

More significantly, the Court overturned Teague v. Lane concluding “no new rules of criminal procedure can satisfy the watershed exception.” The Court noted that in the 32 years since Teague was decided “the Court has never found that any new procedural rule actually satisfies that purported exception.” The Court only identified one pre-Teague procedural rule as watershed—the right to counsel recognized in Gideon v. Wainwright (1963). According to the Court: “Continuing to articulate a theoretical exception that never actually applies in practice offers false hope to defendants, distorts the law, misleads judges, and wastes the resources of defense counsel, prosecutors, and courts.”

Justice Kagan wrote a blistering dissent which Justices Breyer and Sotomayor joined. “The majority cannot (and indeed does not) deny, given all Ramos said, that the jury unanimity requirement fits to a tee Teague’s description of a watershed procedural rule.” “So everything rests on the majority’s last move—the overturning of Teague’s watershed exception. If there can never be any watershed rules—as the majority here asserts out of the blue—then, yes, jury unanimity cannot be one.” “In overruling a critical aspect of Teague, the majority follows none of the usual rules of stare decisis. It discards precedent without a party requesting that action. And it does so with barely a reason given, much less the ‘special justification’ our law demands.”