Duncan v. Louisiana

Duncan v. Louisiana
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Supreme Court of the United States
Argued January 17, 1968
Decided December 21, 1968
Full case name Gary Duncan v. State of Louisiana
Citations 391 U.S. 145 (more)
88 S. Ct. 1444; 20 L. Ed. 2d 491; 1968 U.S. LEXIS 1631; 45 Ohio Op. 2d 198
Prior history Defendant convicted, Twenty-fifth Judicial District Court of Louisiana; cert. denied, 195 So. 2d 142 (La. 1967)
Subsequent history Rehearing denied, 392 U.S. 947 (1968)
A crime carrying a 2-year sentence is sufficiently serious to require the right to a jury trial under the Sixth Amendment, as applied to the states by the Fourteenth. The US Supreme Court reversed and remanded.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority White, joined by Warren, Black, Douglas, Brennan, Fortas, Marshall
Concurrence Black, joined by Douglas
Concurrence Fortas
Dissent Harlan, joined by Stewart
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amends. VI, XIV

Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145 (1968), was a significant United States Supreme Court decision which incorporated the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial and applied it to the states.


Background of the case

In October, 1966, Gary Duncan, a 19-year old African-American, was driving down a Louisiana highway when he noticed his two cousins with a group of white youths on the side of the road. He became concerned because his cousins had reported occurrences of “racial incidents” at the recently de-segregated school. He pulled over the car, stepped out, and asked his cousins to get in the car. The white youths testified that Duncan slapped one of them at this point, while Duncan and his cousins denied it. Duncan was arrested and ultimately charged with simple battery. As it is punishable by no more than two years, simple battery is a misdemeanor under Louisiana law and therefore not subject to trial by jury. Duncan was convicted and received a 60 day prison sentence and a fine of $150. He appealed on the grounds that the state had violated the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments guaranteeing his right to a jury trial. The Court accepted the case under its appellate jurisdiction from the Louisiana State Supreme Court.


Do the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments guarantee the right to jury trial in state prosecutions where sentences as long as two years may be imposed?

Majority Opinion

Justice White noted that the right to a jury trial for criminal offenses is a deeply enshrined value in both the British and American legal traditions. Despite its particular flaws, he said, its importance was widely recognized and meets the test of being "deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition." Thus, right to a jury trial in criminal cases is within the 14th Amendment, and therefore is applicable to the states.

The question for the court was whether an offense subject to two years imprisonment is a “serious offense.” The majority noted that at the time of ratification, crimes punishable by more than six months imprisonment were typically subject to jury trial. Furthermore, both federal law and forty-nine states recognized that a crime carrying a sentence of over one year necessitated a jury trial. The Court found that the Louisiana law was out of sync with both the historical and current standards of the justice system and was therefore ruled unconstitutional.

Other Opinions

Justice Black, concurring: Black argues for total incorporation, holding that all amendments in the Bill of Rights are made applicable to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment.[1] He cites Congressional records from the ratification of the amendment to support his position. He holds that anything less than total incorporation would leave the enforcement of these rights to the whims of the judiciary.

Justice Fortas, concurring: Though it is obvious that the right to jury trial is fundamental for serious offences, it is not the court’s role to dictate to the states what specific form such a jury trial should take. The states should be free to develop their own rules regarding the exercise of a jury trial and not be held accountable to some historical or federal standard.

Justice Harlan, dissenting:

The States have always borne primary responsibility for operating the machinery of criminal justice within their borders, and adapting it to their particular circumstances. In exercising this responsibility, each State is compelled to conform its procedures to the requirements of the Federal Constitution. The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires that those procedures be fundamentally fair in all respects. It does not, in my view, impose or encourage nationwide uniformity for its own sake; it does not command adherence to forms that happen to be old; and it does not impose on the States the rules that may be in force in the federal courts except where such rules are also found to be essential to basic fairness.

Summary of the Court's decision

By a 7-2 majority the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Duncan, arguing that the right to a jury trial in criminal cases was fundamental and central to the American conception of justice. As such the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires states to honor requests for jury trials. The Court maintained the common-law exception for "petty crimes", which are defined as those punishable by a maximum of a $500 fine and six months in prison. In such cases, states are not obligated to provide jury trials.

See also


  1. ^ "'no state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States' seems to me an eminently reasonable way of expressing the idea that henceforth the Bill of Rights shall apply to the States." Curtis, Michael Kent (1994) [1986]. No State Shall Abridge (Second printing in paperback ed.). Duke University Press. p. 202. ISBN 0-8223-0599-2. 

External links

  • Text of Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145 (1968) is available from: Justia · Findlaw

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