AP NEWS

Analysis: Louisiana figures in 2 major Supreme Court cases

October 13, 2019

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Among cases on the U.S. Supreme Court docket for the term that began this month, two Louisiana cases stand out — one because of its implications for criminal justice in the state, the other because of what it portends for abortion rights and access nationwide.

And, both, in part, because they deal with matters that, on the surface, might appear to have been settled.

Yes, voters approved a constitutional amendment requiring unanimous jury verdicts in felony cases — following Pulitzer Prize winning reporting by The Advocate on the racial impacts of allowing 10-2 verdicts. But sometimes lost amid celebrations of the measure’s passage is its effective date: it applies to crimes that happened on or after Jan. 1 of this year.

No help to people like Evangelisto Ramos, who was convicted on a 10-2 jury vote in 2016 of second-degree murder in the killing of a woman in New Orleans. Ramos is serving a life sentence with no chance of parole.

“What about the constitutional rights of people in prison?” Justice Neil Gorsuch asked Elizabeth Murrill, a lawyer with Louisiana’s Attorney General’s Office, who argued last week in the Ramos case that the state’s court system could be inundated with claims if the justices rule against the state.

“A ruling in the defense’s favor would be enormous,” said New Orleans attorney Patrick Barker, who said most of the appeals he handles involve non-unanimous verdicts — including the 10-2 manslaughter conviction of Cardell Hayes.

Hayes was 28 and the father of a young son when he fatally shot retired New Orleans Saints star Will Smith during a confrontation following a 2016 traffic crash. He’s still got appeal issues pending at the state Supreme Court and Barker is ready to press on to federal courts to keep the appeals alive — hoping to capitalize if a decision is reached in Ramos’ favor.

Certainly, this could mean pain ahead for victims’ families. The Will Smith death trial was an often gut-wrenching spectacle where Smith’s widow had to relive the night her husband died and she was wounded by gunfire.

But should Hayes, who never backed down from his insistence that the drunken Smith was the aggressor, be denied a chance at a plea deal or new trial for the 2016 shooting if the rules have changed?

While the Ramos case is pending, the high court also is preparing for arguments in the Louisiana abortion case.

In 2016, justices struck down a Texas measure requiring doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at local hospitals. The New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal later upheld a virtually identical Louisiana requirement. Judge Jerry Smith wrote for the majority in a 2-1 decision last fall that the situation in Louisiana is different. He disputed findings by a lower court judge that the law could lead to closure of one or two of Louisiana’s three clinics. The full court, in January, rejected a request for rehearing in a 9-6 vote.

There were two highly critical dissents in the case.

The first came in the fall 2018 panel ruling from Judge Patrick Higginbotham, tapped for the court by President Ronald Reagan. His 30-page dissent took the majority to task for, in effect, retrying the case after U.S. District Judge John deGravelles had given full consideration to the facts, finding that the law provided no medical benefit and would illegally reduce access.

When the full court voted 9-6 against a rehearing, Justice James Dennis, a Bill Clinton nominee, also strongly dissented.

But the majority teed the case up for a Supreme Court that has changed since the 2016 decision in the Texas case. Donald Trump nominee Gorsuch has since joined the court. And Justice Anthony Kennedy, part of the majority in the 2016 case, has retired, replaced by Trump nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

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EDITORS NOTE: Kevin McGill is an Associated Press reporter in New Orleans.