Duncan v. Louisiana: Right to Jury Trial (05/20/1968)


Duncan v. Louisiana

Was the State of Louisiana obligated to provide a jury trial in criminal cases like Duncan’s?  

Argued: 01/17/1968

Decision Date: 05/20/1968

Decision Record: 7-2; yes

Justices in Favor: Earl Warren, Hugo Black, William Douglas, William Brennan, Byron White, Abe Fortas, Thurgood Marshall

Justices Dissenting: John Harlan, Potter Stewart

Effect of the Decision

This case ruled that a criminal case such as Duncan’s was allowed a trial by jury. However, the decision that petty crimes did not require jury trails was also made.

In Favor

In the favoring side of this case, on the side of Duncan, attorney Richard B. Sobol argued, “This case is here on appeal from the Supreme Court of Louisiana.

And it raises the issue that was to a logic stand assumed in the case immediately preceding, namely whether the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment secures the right to trial by jury in state criminal proceedings.

The appellant in this case was charged in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana with the crime of simple battery, which is defined in the Louisiana Code, as the intentional use of force or violence upon the person of another without a dangerous weapon.

This offense in Louisiana includes all batteries other than those committed with a dangerous weapon and is punishable by two years imprisonment without hard labor and a $300.00 fine.

In Louisiana, there are four categories of crimes for purposes of trial by jury.

In capital cases only, a jury of 12 all of whom must concur in a verdict is provided, that is the common law constitutional jury.

In cases in which imprisonment must be at hard labor, a 12-man jury is provided, but nine jurors are sufficient to return a verdict.

In cases in which imprisonment may be at hard labor, a five-man jury is provided and included in that category are such serious crimes as aggravated criminal damage to property.”


In the opposition, on the side of Louisiana, attorney Dorothy D. Wolbrette, “The facts of this case are exceedingly simple.

The simple facts as shown by the record make it clear that appellant who was 19 years old, even according to his own testimony, made an intentional bodily contact on the victim who was 14 years old without his consent.

The simple facts of this case show that the appellant committed a simple battery of misdemeanor.

That he was given a fair trial and that he was sentenced to 60 days in the Parish Jail, and a $150.00 fine.

The 60-day sentence for a simple battery brings this case squarely under this Court’s decision in Cheff versus Schnackenberg, if the Sixth Amendment jury trial right applies to the states.

Cheff held that the imposition of an actual sentence of six months or less is constitutionally permissible under Article III and the Sixth Amendment without a trial by jury if the inherent nature of the offense charged is that of a petty offense and Mr. Justice Brennan, that answers your question about the federal system.

It would have to be a serious, I mean, it would have to be a petty — the nature of the offense would have to be petty.

Therefore, it could not involve any crime in a federal system with more than a year penalty because if you have more than a year penalty, you go to the federal — you may go to the federal penitentiary and this Court has held that that is an infamous offense in the federal system.”


On the majority side, also the affirming side, Justice White wrote the opinion. He wrote, “In determining whether the length of the authorized prison term or the seriousness of other punishment is enough, in itself, to require a jury trial, we are counseled by District of Columbia v. Clawans, supra, to refer to objective criteria, chiefly the existing laws and practices in the Nation. In the federal system, petty offenses are defined as those punishable by no more than six months in prison and a $500 fine. In 49 of the 50 States, crimes subject to trial without a jury, which occasionally include simple battery, are punishable by no more than one year in jail. Moreover, in the late 18th century in America, crimes triable without a jury were, for the most part, punishable by no more than a six-month prison term, although there appear to have been exceptions to this rule. We need not, however, settle in this case the exact location of the line between petty offenses and serious crimes. It is sufficient for our purposes to hold that a crime punishable by two years in prison is, based on past and contemporary standards in this country, a serious crime, and not a petty offense. Consequently, appellant was entitled to a jury trial, and it was error to deny it.”

In the side of the opposition, Justice Harlan wrote the opinion. He wrote, “The point is not that many offenses that English-speaking communities have, at one time or another, regarded as triable without a jury are more serious, and carry more serious penalties, than the one involved here. The point is, rather, that, until today, few people would have thought the exact location of the line mattered very much. There is no obvious reason why a jury trial is a requisite of fundamental fairness when the charge is robbery, and not a requisite of fairness when the same defendant, for the same actions, is charged with assault and petty theft. The reason for the historic exception for relatively minor crimes is the obvious one: the burden of jury trial was thought to outweigh its marginal advantages. Exactly why the States should not be allowed to make continuing adjustments, based on the state of their criminal dockets and the difficulty of summoning jurors, simply escapes me.

In sum, there is a wide range of views on the desirability of trial by jury, and on the ways to make it most effective when it is used; there is also considerable variation from State to State in local conditions such as the size of the criminal caseload, the ease or difficulty of summoning jurors, and other trial conditions bearing on fairness. We have before us, therefore, an almost perfect example of a situation in which the celebrated dictum of Mr. Justice Brandeis should be invoked. It is, he said,

one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory. . . .

New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann, 285 U.S. 262, 280, 311 (dissenting opinion). This Court, other courts, and the political process are available to correct any experiments in criminal procedure that prove fundamentally unfair to defendants. That is not what is being done today: instead, and quite without reason, the Court has chosen to impose upon every State one means of trying criminal cases; it is a good means, but it is not the only fair means, and it is not demonstrably better than the alternatives States might devise.”

My Opinion:

In this case, I agree with the majority opinion. In the Constitution, no where in the Sixth Amendment does it mention “petty crimes.” Because this was not explicitly stated, there was no reason Duncan should have been denied a trial by jury. Like the justices said in their majority opinion, denying a jury trial would be considered both a violation to the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment.

*Justice Leaning L=Left, LC=Left of Center, C=Center, RC=Right of Center, R=Right

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