Duncan v. Louisiana was argued January 17, 1968, and decided May 20, 1968, by a vote of seven to two. Justice White delivered the opinion for the Court, with Justices Harlan and Stewart dissenting. The Court held that the defendant, accused under Louisiana law of simple battery, a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum of two years’ imprisonment and a $300 fine, was entitled under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to a jury trial, even though Duncan was sentenced to sixty days in jail and a $150 fine. The decision reaffirmed the right to a jury trial in criminal cases as a fundamental right even if the offense is petty.
In the lower courts, Duncan was tried and convicted of simple battery. The State of Louisiana argued, successfully, that a jury trial was only required in cases in which capital punishment and hard labor may be imposed. Justice White reversed the Louisiana Supreme Court by arguing that fundamental issues of liberty were at stake and cited Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45 (1932) for his rationale.
In Duncan, Justice White summarized the history and importance of trial by jury, dating back to the Magna Carta. Fearful of possible judicial bias in cases, the justice explained why trial by jury remains an important fixture in the U.S. legal system:
The guarantees of jury trial in the Federal and State Constitutions reflect a profound judgment about the way in which law should be enforced and justice administered. A right to jury trial is granted to criminal defendants in order to prevent oppression by the Government . . . If the defendant preferred the common-sense judgment of a jury to the more tutored but perhaps less sympathetic reaction of the single judge, he was to have it (pp. 155–156).
Justice Harlan, whom Justice Stewart joined, dissented. His dissent centered around the notion of states’ rights. Justice Harlan argued that a state has historically held the responsibility for ‘‘operating the machinery of criminal justice within its borders.’’
AARON R. S. LORENZ