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Duncan v. Louisiana

Citation. 391 U.S. 145, 88 S.Ct. 1444, 20 L.Ed.2d 491 (1968).

Brief Fact Summary.

Duncan, accused of simple battery, was denied a jury trial.  The State of Louisiana limited jury trials to cases in which capital punishment or hard labor could be imposed.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial is guaranteed in state criminal prosecutions where the charge is punishable by up to two years imprisonment.

Facts.

Duncan was charged with simple battery, a misdemeanor punishable by two years imprisonment.  He sought a trial by jury, but the Louisiana Constitution limited jury trials to cases in which capital punishment or hard labor could be imposed.  He was convicted and sentenced to serve 60 days.

Issue.

Whether the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments guarantee the right to a jury trial in state criminal prosecutions for charges with potential sentences as long as two years.

Held.

JUSTICE WHITE holding:  Yes.  The right to a jury trial in criminal cases is “fundamental to the American scheme of justice,” and thus is guaranteed to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Dissent.

Justice Harlan

Justice Harlan did not believe that the Fourteenth Amendment sought to incorporate or limit the guarantees of the first eight amendments.  “[N]either history, nor sense, supports using the Fourteenth Amendment to put the States in a constitutional straitjacket . . . .”  In incorporating the Bill of Rights, Justice Harlan would look to the words “liberty” and “due process” and define them in a flexible way that would consider tradition while also evaluating current conditions and experience.  In addressing whether Louisiana was required to provide Duncan a jury trial, Harlan would have analyzed things like the State’s caseload, the difficulty in summoning jurors, and other conditions bearing on fairness to decide whether Duncan was denied due process.

Concurrence.

Justice Black

Justice Black wrote separately to address Justice Harlan’s dissent.  In Black’s view, the “privileges and immunities” clause of the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed the first eight Amendments of the Constitution to the States.  Therefore, he would have incorporated the first eight Amendments wholesale, not selectively.

According to Justice Harlan, due process under the Fourteenth Amendment would be a shifting principle and would come to mean whatever is best for the country.  If this were the case, however, the Fourteenth Amendment would have said “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property except by laws that the judges of the United States Supreme Court shall find to be consistent with the immutable principles of free government.”

Justice Fortas

The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees to state criminal defendants the right to jury trials for offenses “that are not petty.”

Discussion.

In deciding whether the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial should be incorporated to the states, the Court asked “whether [the] right is among those ‘fundamental principles of liberty and justice which lie at the base of all our civil and political institutions.”  Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45, 67 (1932).  The Court held that the right to a jury trial in serious criminal cases is fundamental.  The Court reasoned that, at the time, every State guaranteed the right to a jury trial in serious criminal cases, thus demonstrating the right’s importance.  Further, the right to a jury trial serves as a defense against arbitrary law enforcement and assures fair trials.

The State argued that guaranteeing the right to a jury trial would cast doubt on the validity of bench trials.  The Court rejected this, reasoning that criminal defendants could still elect for a bench trial.  The right to choose a jury trial, however, serves the purpose of making judicial or prosecutorial unfairness less likely.  Finally, the State argued that simple battery was not sufficiently serious to mandate a jury trial, as evidenced by Duncan being sentenced to only 60 days.  The Court reasoned that it is the potential penalty not the ultimate sentence which decides whether the charge is serious enough to subject it to the mandates of the Sixth Amendment.


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