Criminalizing Blackness: Our Fight Against Racism in the Supreme Court
Human Rights for Kids
Jul 22, 2020

From Human Rights for Kids: “Earlier this year, in an opinion authored by Justice Gorsuch in Ramos v. Louisiana, the Supreme Court struck down laws allowing defendants in criminal trials to be convicted by non-unanimous juries. Yesterday, alongside our partners, we filed one of our most important Briefs to-date in the Supreme Court in a case called Edwards v. Vannoy, which will determine if the Courts Ramos decision applies to people whose cases are final. 

The Court in Ramos went to great lengths to explain how the laws in Louisiana and Oregon were enacted after the adoption of the 14th Amendment in an attempt to silence the votes of black jurors and make it easier to convict black defendants. Non-unanimous juries had been a lingering vestige of the Jim Crow era that, up until this year, had been allowed to operate. 

Our brief focused on the impact of this racist law on children in particular. Back in April, we began to research and conduct outreach to people who were incarcerated for crimes they were alleged to have committed as children in Louisiana and Oregon. It was a frantic search of nearly 3,000 people in an effort to identify children who may have claims under the Court’s new decision. To our relief, our sister organization – the Promise of Justice Initiative (PJI) – had already researched and identified most of the population in Louisiana convicted by non-unanimous juries – including children. What the data showed was that 90% of the children convicted by non-unanimous were black. When Louisiana adopted its non-unanimous jury rule, its stated purpose was to establish “the supremacy of the white race.” Newspapers at the time, along with the Judiciary Committee Chairman, equated non-unanimous jury convictions with lynching black Americans. That is what non-unanimous juries were intended to do and that is what they have done, even until this day. 

Relying on the data we and PJI had collected, along with the individual stories of children convicted by non-unanimous juries we uncovered, we argued to the Supreme Court that the Jim Crow jury has been alive and well in Louisiana, and black children have been especially harmed by it. Here is an excerpt from our brief: 

“It shouldn’t be a crime to be born black in America. The Court cannot allow a Constitutional transgression of this magnitude—criminalizing blackness—to persist out of concern for “reliance interests” or “sentence finality.” The rights of black children to simply exist outweigh any interest that these states might shamefully muster to the contrary.”

To read our full Amicus Brief click on the hyperlinked text.

While the work is just beginning to undo this legacy of racism in Louisiana and Oregon, we plan to make sure that children remain front and center in this debate at the U.S. Supreme Court. Many of the kids who were unconstitutionally convicted also received unconstitutional sentences of life and de facto life without parole in violation of the 8th Amendment. As we make clear in our brief – no state in the Union has violated the constitutional and human rights of children in the justice system to the degree Louisiana has. We will not let this injustice go unchallenged and we will call what Louisiana has done for what it truly is: criminalizing blackness.

We want to acknowledge and thank our partners at PJI who assisted us in the use of their research, as well as the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights who joined us in submitting this brief. We also want to especially thank the Law Firm of Polsinelli here in Washington, D.C., who represented us, assisted in the drafting process, and filed the brief on our behalf. Most importantly, we want to thank the people who worked with us to profile their stories in the Amicus Brief. They are the children who have suffered and continue to suffer the constitutional and human rights violations that no child should ever experience. WE HEAR YOU, WE SEE YOU, WE LOVE YOU, and WE WILL CONTINUE TO FIGHT BY YOUR SIDE. “

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