Duncan v. Louisiana: Supreme Court Case, Arguments, Impact

A modern jury box.

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Duncan v. Louisiana (1968) asked the Supreme Court to determine whether a state could deny someone the right to a trial by jury. The Supreme Court found that an individual charged with a serious criminal offense is guaranteed a jury trial under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Key Takeaways: Duncan v. Louisiana

  • In 1966, Charles Duncan was convicted of simple battery—a misdemeanor in Louisiana punishable by up to two years in prison.
  • Duncan requested a jury trial and was denied by the state. He argued that his Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment rights to a trial by jury had been violated.
  • The Supreme Court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees a Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury for individuals facing criminal charges for "serious offenses."
  • The Supreme Court also established that "petty offenses: are not covered by the Sixth Amendment and can be adjudicated through a bench trial.

Facts of the Case

In 1966, Gary Duncan was driving down the Highway 23 in Louisiana when he saw a group of young men at the side of the road. When he slowed his car, he recognized that two members of the group were his cousins, who had just transferred to an all-white school.

Worried about the rate of racial incidents at the school and the fact that the group of boys consisted of four white boys and two black boys, Duncan stopped his car. He encouraged his cousins to disengage by getting in the car with him. Before getting back in the car himself, a brief altercation occurred.

At trial, the white boys testified that Duncan had slapped one of them on the elbow. Duncan and his cousins testified that Duncan had not slapped the boy, but rather had touched him. Duncan requested a jury trial and was refused. At the time, Louisiana only allowed jury trials for charges which could result in capital punishment or imprisonment at hard labor. The trial judge convicted Duncan of simple battery, a misdemeanor in the state of Louisiana, sentencing him to 60 days in jail and a $150 fine. Duncan then turned to the Supreme Court of Louisiana to review his case. He argued that denying him a jury trial when he faced up to two years in prison violated his Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

Constitutional Issues

Can a state deny someone a jury trial when they face criminal charges?

The Arguments

Attorneys for the State of Louisiana argued that the U.S. Constitution did not force states to provide jury trials in any criminal case. Louisiana relied on several cases, including Maxwell v. Dow and Snyder v. Massachusetts, to show that the Bill of Rights, particularly the Sixth Amendment, should not apply to the states. If the Sixth Amendment were to apply, it would cast doubt on trials conducted without juries. It would also not apply to Duncan's case. He was sentenced to 60 days in jail and a monetary fine. His case does not meet the standard for a serious criminal offense, according to the state.

Attorneys on behalf of Duncan argued that the state violated Duncan's Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury. The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which protects individuals from arbitrary denial of life, liberty, and property, ensures the right to a trial by jury. Like many other elements of the Bill of Rights, the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the Sixth Amendment to the states. When Louisiana denied Duncan a jury trial, it violated his fundamental right.

Majority Opinion

Justice Byron White delivered the 7-2 decision. According to the court, the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment applies the Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury to the states. As a result, Louisiana violated Duncan's Sixth Amendment right when the state refused to give him a proper jury trial. Justice White wrote:

Our conclusion is that, in the American States, as in the federal judicial system, a general grant of jury trial for serious offenses is a fundamental right, essential for preventing miscarriages of justice and for assuring that fair trials are provided for all defendants. 

The decision asserted that not every criminal offense is "serious" enough to require a jury trial under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Court made it clear that petty offenses did not require a trial by jury, upholding the traditional common law practice of using a bench trial to adjudicate petty offenses. The Justices reasoned that there was no "substantial evidence" that the Framers of the Constitution aimed to ensure the right to a trial by jury for less serious charges.

In order to separate a "serious offense" from a "petty offense," the court looked to District of Columbia v. Clawans (1937). In that case, the court used objective criteria and focused on the existing laws and practices in federal courts to determine whether a petty offense required a jury trial. In Duncan v. Louisiana, the majority evaluated standards in the federal courts, state courts, and 18th-century American legal practices to determine that a crime punishable by up to two years in prison could not be called a petty offense.

Dissenting Opinion

Justice John Marshall Harlan dissented, joined by Justice Potter Stewart. The dissenters reasoned that states should be allowed to set their own jury trial standards, unimpeded by the Court but constitutionally fair. Justice Harlan encouraged the idea that the Fourteenth Amendment requires fairness through constitutionality rather than uniformity. States, he argued, should be allowed to individually conform their courtroom procedures to the Constitution.

Impact

Duncan v. Louisiana incorporated the right to a trial by jury under the Sixth Amendment, guaranteeing it as a fundamental right. Prior to this case, the application of jury trials in criminal cases differed across states. After Duncan, denying a jury trial for serious criminal charges with sentences of greater than six months would be unconstitutional. The use of jury trial waivers and civil court juries still varies between states.

Sources

  • Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145 (1968)
  • District of Columbia v. Clawans, 300 U.S. 617 (1937).