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State v. Hodge

Supreme Court of Louisiana

November 19, 2019

STATE OF LOUISIANA
v.
VALENTINO RAMON HODGE

          ON APPEAL FROM THE 11TH JUDICIAL DISTRICT COURT, PARISH OF SABINE

          WEIMER, Justice. [1]

         This case is before the court on direct appeal from a district court ruling declaring unconstitutional the jury verdict regime found in La. Const. art. I, § 17 and La. C.Cr.P. art. 782, which allow for verdicts on a vote of ten of twelve jurors for felonies committed before January 1, 2019. The district court committed the following two interrelated errors: (i) creating, on that court's own initiative (sua sponte), a constitutional challenge to statutory law and to provisions of the Louisiana Constitution and (ii) striking down the jury verdict regime as unconstitutional on the basis of an earlier, nonbinding district court holding. Based on these errors, this court vacates the district court's ruling and remands for further proceedings.

         BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         By separate bills of information, the defendant was charged with one count of domestic abuse battery by strangulation in the presence of a minor in violation of La. R.S. 14:35.3(B)(7), (I) and with one count of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon in violation of La. R.S. 14:95.1. These alleged felony crimes both occurred on December 5, 2016.

         The defendant pleaded not guilty, and the charges were slated for a jury trial.[2]Owing in large measure to the defendant's vacillation between being represented by appointed counsel and seeking retained counsel, the trial date was continued several times.

         On January 24, 2019, the state filed a motion in limine seeking to have the district court declare that the defendant would be tried by a jury composed of twelve jurors, ten of whom must concur to render a verdict. The next day, without a hearing, the district court signed an order denying the state's motion in limine and declaring that the defendant is entitled to a unanimous jury verdict pursuant to the district court's own earlier ruling in State v. Melvin Cartez Maxie, 11th Judicial District Court, No. 13-CR-72522, rendered on October 11, 2018.

         In Maxie, decided by the same judge, the district court ruled that the nonunanimous jury regime ran afoul of the federal constitution's Equal Protection Clause. The state appealed, but before the record was lodged in this court, the state dismissed the appeal, apparently to once again vest the district court with jurisdiction, based on Mr. Maxie's intent to submit a guilty plea.[3]

         The state appealed the instant case, urging that this court has jurisdiction over the district court's declaration of a statute's unconstitutionality. See La. Const. art. V, § 5(D), quoted infra.

         DISCUSSION

         As a preliminary matter, this court is called on to evaluate the very nature of the district court's ruling because the state and the defendant differ on its purported effect. The state argues the ruling is a declaration of unconstitutionality, which in straightforward fashion renders the ruling susceptible of a direct appeal to this court. The defendant argues the ruling is confined to denying the state's motion in limine and indicating the defendant is entitled to a unanimous jury verdict for adjudicating his potential guilt. The after effect of the defendant's argument is that a direct appeal to this court is unavailable; any appeal by the state must be taken to the intermediate court of appeal. The defendant acknowledges, however, that even if a direct appeal to this court is disallowed, this court has discretion to convert the state's appeal to a review under this court's supervisory jurisdiction.

         The position of the state is correct. The district court's ruling places its prior decision in Maxie as the ultimate authority on the number of jurors required for a guilty verdict, [4] notwithstanding that La. Const. art. I, § 17[5] and La. C.Cr.P. Art. 782(A)[6] explicitly allow for guilty verdicts on a vote of ten of twelve jurors for felonies committed before January 1, 2019. By subordinating constitutional and statutory provisions to the district court's own ruling in Maxie, the district court essentially ruled Louisiana's constitutional and statutory provisions are unconstitutional in reference to the federal constitution. Dispelling any doubt, the order of appeal notably recites that the district court rendered a "decision that Article 1, § 17 of the Louisiana Constitution of 1974 and Article 782 is facially unconstitutional," and "the State's Motion for Appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court is GRANTED." Thus, the state's direct appeal to this court is proper. See La. Const. art. V, § 5(D), quoted infra.

         Having determined the district court indeed declared that La. Const. of 1974 art. I, § 17 and La. C.Cr.P. art. 782 are unconstitutional, the next step in the analysis is guided by a considerable history of Louisiana jurisprudence prohibiting courts from sua sponte striking down constitutional and statutory law. In State v. Board of Supervisors, La. State Univ. & Agr. & Mechanical College, 228 La. 951, 84 So.2d 597, 600 (1955), this court held that "all Acts of the Legislature are constitutional until declared otherwise in proceedings brought contradictorily between interested persons." More recently, this court found the principles prohibiting a court from sua sponte striking down statutory law also prohibit any sua sponte striking down provisions of the state constitution, inasmuch as "[a] constitutional provision is a more basic, fundamental provision than a statutory enactment." State v. Bazile, 11-2201, p. 6 (La. 1/24/12), 85 So.3d 1, 4. In Bazile, this court explained the prohibition against a court raising a constitutional challenge sua sponte is rooted in the fact that "judges were charged by their judicial oaths to enforce" the laws as written. Id., 11-2201 at 5, 85 So.2d at 4 (citing Greater New Orleans Expressway Com'n v. Olivier, 04-2147, p. 10 (La. 1/19/05), 892 So.2d 570, 577).

         Inherent in the defendant's position, noted earlier, that the district court did not issue a declaration of unconstitutionality, is that the district court did not do so sua sponte. This court disagrees with the defendant as to the substance of the district court's ruling and further review of the procedural origins of that determination compels the conclusion that the district court's ruling was rendered sua sponte. While it is true that "there is no single procedure for attacking the constitutionality of a statute," this court has identified a typical three-step analysis for a challenger to carry his burden to prove unconstitutionality. State v. Hatton, 07-2377, p. 14 (La. 7/1/08), 985 So.2d 709, 719. "First, a party must raise the unconstitutionality in the trial court; second, the unconstitutionality of a statute must be specially pleaded; and third, the grounds outlining the basis of unconstitutionality must be particularized." Id. Here, it was not the defendant, but the state that raised a question about the number of jurors necessary to render a guilty verdict. The state sought recognition of the nonunanimous verdict requirement via a motion in limine, which, consistent with the state's present position, did not urge that the nonunanimous verdict provisions were unconstitutional.

         In a more usual case, a determination that the district court erred in creating a constitutional issue where none was presented might end the analysis of the district court's ruling. See, e.g., Bazile, supra; Hatton, supra. This is not a usual case. The substantive reason the district court gave within the ruling itself[7] for finding the nonunanimous verdict provision unconstitutional was the district court's earlier holding in Maxie. For his part, the defendant argues "[t]he district court was entitled and bound to rule in accordance with its own prior, undisturbed judgment in Maxie." This court disagrees.

         Maxie, as noted above, was a district court ruling that the nonunanimous jury verdict was unconstitutional, pursuant to the federal constitution. The chief obstacle to applying the holding in Maxie to other cases is the same provision presently empowering this court to review the declaration of unconstitutionality in this case, i.e., La. Const. art. V, § 5(D) ("a case shall be appealable to the supreme court if … a law or ordinance has been declared unconstitutional."). Stated simply, if the district court's Maxie ruling prevents the district court from reviewing the constitutionality of nonunanimous verdicts, this court will likewise be prevented from appellate review of any evidence and argument on constitutionality.[8] Such a situation would defeat the authority accorded to this court to serve as the final, statewide authority as to what laws pass constitutional muster.

         In an analogous criminal case, City of Shreveport v. Baylock, 236 La. 133, 107 So.2d 419 (1958), this court considered whether a district court judge was bound by a prior declaration of unconstitutionality by another district court judge. Just as here, the prior declaration of unconstitutionality had not been evaluated on appeal. The defendant argued the declaration of unconstitutionality barred his prosecution under an ordinance that had been declared to be unconstitutional. This court held that the prior declaration of unconstitutionality by the district court did not bar the defendant's prosecution under that ordinance. Id., 107 So.2d at 422.

         In Baylock, this court surveyed the jurisprudence of other jurisdictions and noted a consensus of "holdings … that a definitive judgment of a tribunal that is not a court of last resort is conclusive only for the particular case decided and is not binding in future cases." Id. at 421. Importantly, this court also reasoned that if the prior district court judgment of unconstitutionality was binding in a later case, that would bar "this court on a review of the judgment . . . from later determining the same constitutional issue." Id. at 422. Although Baylock was decided under a previous state constitution, these rationales remain applicable today because the constitutionally-mandated jurisdictional principles then and now are substantially the same. Compare La. Const. of 1921 art. VII, § 10(2) (1958) ("Cases in which . . . a law of this state has been declared unconstitutional" are among those that "shall be appealable to the Supreme Court."), with La. Const. of 1974 art. V, § 5(D) ("a case shall be appealable to the supreme court if … a law or ordinance has been declared unconstitutional.").

         At this concluding juncture, a longstanding rule-reflecting the primary role of legislation in the justice system-bears repeating: "Statutes are generally presumed to be constitutional and the party challenging the validity of the statute bears the burden of proving it is unconstitutional." Hatton, 07-2377 at 13, 985 So.2d at 719 (citing State v. Fleury, 01-0871, p. 5 (La. 10/16/01), 799 So.2d 468, 472; State v. Brenner, 486 So.2d 101, 103 (La. 1986); and State v. Rones, 223 La. 839, 67 So.2d 99, 105 (1953)). Likewise, "[a] constitutional provision begins as a legislative enactment and, therefore, also requires enforcement by the district court." Bazile, 11-2201 at 6, 85 So.3d at 4 (citing La. Const. art. XIII, ยง 1(A) and (C)). Measured by these principles, the district court's declaration of unconstitutionality in this case represents two simultaneous ...


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