McKeiver v. Pennsylvania: Supreme Court Case, Arguments, Impact

Juvenile justice and the right to a trial by jury

Parents stand with child in courtroom

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In McKeiver v. Pennsylvania (1971), the Supreme Court consolidated multiple juvenile justice cases to address the right to a trial by jury in juvenile court. The majority opinion held that juveniles do not have the right to a trial by jury under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Fast Facts: McKeiver v. Pennsylvania

  • Case Argued: December 9—10, 1970
  • Decision Issued: June 21, 1971
  • Petitioner: Joseph McKeiver, et al
  • Respondent:  State of Pennsylvania
  • Key Questions: Does the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial apply to juveniles?
  • Majority Decision: Justices Burger, Harlan, Stewart, White, and Blackmun
  • Dissenting: Justices Black, Douglas, Brennan, and Marshall
  • Ruling: The court noted that since juvenile prosecution is not considered either civil or criminal, the whole of the Sixth Amendment does not necessarily apply. As such, there is no requirement for a jury trial in juvenile cases.

Facts of the Case

In 1968, 16-year-old Joseph McKeiver was charged with robbery, larceny, and receiving stolen goods. A year later in 1969, 15-year-old Edward Terry faced charges of assault and battery on a police officer and conspiracy. In each case, their attorneys requested jury trials and were denied. Judges in both cases found the boys to be delinquent. McKeiver was put on probation and Terry was committed to a youth development center.

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania consolidated the cases into one and heard appeals on the basis of a Sixth Amendment violation. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania found that the right to a trial by jury should not be extended to juveniles.

In North Carolina, a group of 40 juveniles aged 11 to 15 faced charges related to school protests. The juveniles were divided into groups. One attorney represented them all. In 38 of the cases, the attorney requested a jury trial and the judge denied it. The cases made their way to the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court of North Carolina. Both courts found that juveniles did not have a Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury.

Constitutional Issues

Do juveniles have a constitutional right to a trial by jury under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments in delinquency proceedings?

The Arguments

Attorneys on behalf of the juveniles argued that judges had violated their right to due process when rejecting requests for a jury trial. Juveniles facing serious criminal charges should be given the same legal protections as adults. Specifically, they should be entitled to a trial by a fair and impartial jury under the Sixth Amendment.

Attorneys on behalf of the states argued that juveniles are not guaranteed the right to a trial by jury under the Sixth Amendment. A bench trial where a judge hears the evidence and determines the fate of the accused better enables the state to do what is best for the juvenile.

Majority Opinion

In a 6-3 plurality decision, the majority found that juveniles did not have a constitutional right to a trial by jury.

The majority opinion in McKeiver v. Pennsylvania was delivered by Justice Harry A. Blackmun, but Justices Byron White, William J. Brennan Jr., and John Marshall Harlan filed their own concurring opinions, expanding on different aspects of the case.

Justice Blackmun chose not to continue a trend of increasing constitutional protections for juveniles, ending a court-imposed reformation of juvenile justice.

His opinion attempted to preserve the flexibility and individuality of juvenile delinquency proceedings. Blackmun was specifically concerned that allowing trials by jury would turn juvenile court proceedings into a "fully adversarial process." Limiting juvenile proceedings to a jury trial might prevent judges from experimenting with juvenile justice. Justice Blackmun also wrote that the problems with juvenile justice would not be solved by juries.

Finally, he reasoned that allowing juvenile courts to function the exact same way that adult courts function would defeat the purpose of maintaining separate courts.

Dissenting Opinions

Justices William O. Douglas, Hugo Black, and Harlan dissented. Justice Brennan dissented in part.

No adult would face possible imprisonment for up to 10 years and be denied a jury trial, Justice Douglas reasoned. If children can be treated the same as adults under the law, they should be afforded the same protections. Justice Douglas argued that a jury trial would be less traumatic than a bench trial because it would prevent imprisonment without due process, which would be far more harmful.

Justice Douglas wrote:

"But where a State uses its juvenile court proceedings to prosecute a juvenile for a criminal act and to order "confinement" until the child reaches 21 years of age, or, where the child, at the threshold of the proceedings, faces that prospect, then he is entitled to the same procedural protection as an adult."


McKeiver v. Pennsylvania halted the progressive incorporation of constitutional protections to juveniles. The Court did not stop states from allowing juveniles to be tried by juries. However, it maintained that a trial by jury was not a necessary protection in the juvenile justice system. In doing so, the Court aimed to restore faith in a system that did not always achieve its intended purpose.


  • McKeiver v. Pennsylvania, 403 U.S. 528 (1971)
  • Ketcham, Orman W. “McKeiver v Pennsylvania the Last Word on Juvenile Court Adjudications.” Cornell Law Review, vol. 57, no. 4, Apr. 1972, pp. 561–570.,
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Spitzer, Elianna. "McKeiver v. Pennsylvania: Supreme Court Case, Arguments, Impact." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Spitzer, Elianna. (2020, August 28). McKeiver v. Pennsylvania: Supreme Court Case, Arguments, Impact. Retrieved from Spitzer, Elianna. "McKeiver v. Pennsylvania: Supreme Court Case, Arguments, Impact." ThoughtCo. (accessed December 10, 2022).