Bill to put non-unanimous juries before voters fails
SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Despite broad support, a measure that would put Oregon’s controversial jury system before voters died in the Oregon Senate during the final days of the 2019 legislative session.
Oregon is the only state in the country that allows for convictions via non-unanimous juries in criminal felony cases.
House Joint Resolution 10 would have put before voters on the November 2020 ballot a proposed change to the Oregon Constitution. If passed, it would have mandated that criminal jury verdicts be unanimous.
Under current Oregon law, only 10 of 12 jurors need to agree to convict someone of a criminal felony. The exception is for murder, which requires unanimity.
Oregon Public Broadcasting reports that with the measure dead, the state’s legal community turns to the U.S. Supreme Court, who will take up non-unanimous juries during its next term.
On June 20, the Oregon House passed HJR10 almost unanimously, with 56 of the body’s 60 members voting in favor of putting the measure before voters. But on Saturday in the Senate, the bill was referred to the rules committee where it stayed until the Legislature adjourned on Sunday.
Williamson said there will still be time during next year’s short session to put the issue on the 2020 ballot if lawmakers choose.
HJR10 not only had bipartisan support from lawmakers but also across the legal community. The Oregon District Attorneys Association testified during the session in support of the measure. They were joined by advocates who have worked for years to do away with the unique system.
In March, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to take up a case out of Louisiana during its next term that could address directly whether non-unanimous juries are constitutional. The Court has ruled in the past that they are.
“Some felt that we should let the case on the issue pending before the United States Supreme Court, Ramos v. Louisiana, play out before advancing a constitutional amendment to voters,” House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, said in a statement Monday. “This issue remains a top priority for me, and I will continue to fight to ensure that non-unanimous juries become a relic of Oregon’s past.”
Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association’s Legislative Director Maria Sophia said Monday the high court’s decision to take up the case, Ramos v. Louisiana, had changed the timeline for some lawmakers. While the Supreme Court hasn’t yet set a date for arguments, there’s a chance it could rule by early spring, before the 2020 general election when the question would go before voters.
“I’m disappointed the Legislature did not pass the bill this session because I think it is imperative that Oregon change its constitution,” Sophia said.