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Duncan v. Louisiana

    Brief Fact Summary. Gary Duncan (Defendant) was convicted of simple battery, a misdemeanor and sentenced to sixty days in the parish prison with a fine of $150.00. He appealed, because he was not given a trial by jury.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. The modern standard is that the court incorporates into the Fourteenth Amendment any guarantee, which is fundamental in the context of the judicial processes maintained by the states. Trial by jury is fundamental to the American scheme of justice and therefore is incorporated into the Fourteenth Amendment.

    Facts. The Louisiana Constitution granted jury trials only in cases in which capital punishment or imprisonment at hard labor could be imposed. Defendant faced a crime punishable by two years imprisonment and a $300.00 fine. He sought trial by jury but the request was denied. He was convicted of simple battery and sentenced to serve sixty days and pay a $150.00 fine. The Supreme Court of Louisiana denied his writ of certiorari because the Louisiana Constitution allowed the state to deny a jury trial.

    Issue. Does the right extended by the Fifth and Sixth Amendments with respect to federal criminal proceedings also protect defendants against station action by the Fourteenth Amendment?

    Held. Justice White opinion. The lower court judgment is reversed and remanded for proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.
    Earlier the Court was asking whether some particular procedural safeguard was required of a state, if a civilized system could be imagined that would not accord the particular protection (Palko). Now there is an assumption that states’ criminal processes are not imagery and theoretical schemes but actual systems with a definite purpose. The question is whether given this kind of system the particular procedure is fundamental, or necessary to the regime of ordered liberty.

    This sort of inquiry has allowed the Fourteenth Amendment to prevent states from admitting evidence seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment, prohibits state prosecutors to comment on a defendant’s failure to testify, and that criminal punishment may not be imposed for the status of narcotics addition. States may also not refuse a speedy trial, confrontation of witnesses, and the assistance at state expense if necessary of counsel. These limitations are not necessarily fundamental to fairness in every criminal system but they are fundamental in the context of the criminal processes maintained by the states.

    There is a debate about the wisdom of permitting untrained laymen to determine the facts in civil and criminal proceedings. However, the debate is mostly centered on the jury in civil cases. Severe critics of civil juries acknowledge that arguments for a criminal jury system are much stronger. The right of a jury trial for serious offenses is a fundamental right, essential for preventing miscarriages of justice and assuring that fair trials are provided for all defendants.
    The decision would not require widespread changes in state criminal processes. The Sixth Amendment has been construed to permit the trial of petty crimes and offenses without a jury. Most states have provisions equal in breadth to the Sixth Amendment. There are only four states in which juries of fewer than twelve can be used without the defendant’s consent for offenses carrying a maximum penalty of greater than one year. Only in Oregon and Louisiana can there be less than unanimous jury convict for an offense with a maximum penalty greater than one year.
    Although the history is skeletal it has shown support for considering the right to jury trial in criminal cases to be fundamental to our system of justice. Laws of every state guarantee a right to jury trial in serious criminal cases. This case may be distinguished from others because no prior case dealt with a state, which had purported to dispense entirely with a jury trial in serious criminal cases.

    Louisiana’s final contention was that even if they must grant jury trials in serious criminal cases, the conviction here was valid and constitutional because the petitioners was tried for a simple battery and sentenced to only sixty days in prison. It may be true that there is a category of petty crimes and offenses, which are not subject to the Sixth Amendment and should not be subject to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. Those crimes are ones labeled as petty offenses and carrying possible prison time of up to six months. The penalty authorized for the crime is of major relevance in determining whether it is serious or not. That penalty is a gauge of the locality’s social and ethical judgments. This simple battery was punishable by imprisonment of two years and a fine. The Court does not agree with Louisiana that with such a penalty the state can insist on trying the defendant without a jury.

    Dissent. Justice Harlan and Stewart dissenting.
    The question here was not whether a trial by jury in criminal cases is significant or important. The question in this case is whether the State of Louisiana, which provides trial by jury for all felonies, was prohibited from trying charges of simple battery to the court alone because it denied an element of fundamental procedural fairness.
    The Court here does not follow the total incorporation approach, which has the virtue of internal consistence but seriously lacks historical support since the framers did not show any evidence of wanting the Fourteenth to incorporate the Bill of Rights.
    The Court also does not follow the selective incorporation approach that was followed throughout the Nineteenth century and most of this century. It was difficult to follow but it intended to protect a state’s right to experiment. The idea of federalism is that there can be considerable variation from State to State in local conditions such as the size of the criminal caseload and other trial conditions bearing on fairness. As Justice Brandeis said, it is good when a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory. If the experiment proves to be fundamentally unfair to defendants then the Court is here to correct it. The approach taken by the majority is to impose only one standard that applies to all states.

    Concurrence. Justices Black, Douglas, and Fortas concurring.
    The dissent insists that history is on their side. However, the history that they depend on is Professor Fairman’s version, which relies very heavily on what was not said when the Fourteenth Amendment was passed. Instead of relying on this negative pregnant, the concurrence relies on what was said, and most importantly what was said by the men that actually sponsored the Amendment in Congress. Both sponsors and those who opposed it believed the Fourteenth Amendment made the first eight Amendments of the Constitution applicable to the states.
    The Fourteenth Amendment as a whole makes the Bill of Rights applicable to the states. Any other method would render “due process” something that has no permanent meaning but one which shifts from time to time in accordance with the judges’ predilections and understandings for what is best for the country. Whether the right not allowed shocks the conscience of the Court depends on the particular judge’s idea of ethics and morals. There are boundaries fixed by the written words of the Constitution and nothing in the history of the Amendment suggest that constitutional controls depend on a particular judge’s sense of values.

    Applying the Bill of Rights to the states as a whole does not encroach state rights and interfere with the idea of federalism. States should not be allowed to experiment with the protections afforded citizens through the Bill of Rights under the guise of federalism.
    It is inconsistent to advocate that the Court has the power to strike down any state law or practice which it finds unreasonable or unfair and on the other hand urge that the states be given maximum power to develop their own laws and protections. Yet the fundamental fairness approach does that since in effect it restricts the states to practices, which a majority of this Court is willing to approve on a case-by-case basis. Broad, general interpretations of due process allow judges to strike down state laws they do not like.
    Selective incorporation is an alternative that if used properly does limit the Supreme Court in the Fourteenth Amendment field to specific Bill of Rights protections only and keeps judges from roaming at will into their own notions of what policies outside the Bill of Rights are desirable and what are not. Also this process has the virtue of having already worked to make most of the Bill of Rights protections applicable to the states.

    J. Fortas said he supported the opinion because the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires states to accord the right to jury trial in prosecutions for offenses that are not petty.

    Discussion.
    Historical support for the incorporating of the first eight amendments to the federal constitution can be mustered both for the majority and he dissenting opinions in most cases.
    The argument for incorporation rests on the known aversion of some of the framers to Barron v. Baltimore (holding that the Bill of Rights does not apply to the states).
    Equally important research says that the Framers did not contemplate such specific content for the Fourteenth Amendment. The fact that there was no specific debate on the point of incorporation means there was no intent to achieve incorporation. Such a substantial change in state procedures would not have been accepted by the state conventions if this were the meaning of the Amendment.

    Is it really possible to discern the intent of Congress from ambiguous historical records and how applicable are those intents today?
    In Palko the Court asked when inquiring into whether some particular procedural safeguard was required of a state, if a civilized system could be imagined that would not accord the particular protection. Now the question is whether given this kind of system a particular procedure is fundamental, or necessary to the regime of ordered liberty.
    Both sides state that a jury trial is not required for a petty offense. So the question should have been was this a petty offense? If this were a simple battery and not a serious crime then the majority would not have questioned the statute.

    Instead this is a case when all the justices decided to debate whether incorporation should evaluated under the Palko standard, total incorporation, or selective incorporation. If one was to try to avoid constitutional questions unless necessary, it seems they went on a tangent.


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