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Jury: Legal Aspects

Origins, The Scope Of The Right, Jury Size, Unanimity, Vicinage, Selecting Jurors

In 1791, the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guaranteed every criminal defendant the right to trial "by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed." This provision was essentially redundant. Article III, section 2 of the Constitution had already provided, "The trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury." The right to jury trial in criminal cases was among the few guarantees of individual rights enumerated in the Constitution of 1789, and it was the only guarantee to appear in both the original document and the Bill of Rights.

Until 1968, the Supreme Court insisted that the Sixth Amendment afforded the right to jury trial only in the federal courts, but that year, in Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145 (1968), the Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment's due process clause "incorporated" this Sixth Amendment right and made it applicable to the states. The Court's opinion declared, "Providing an accused with the right to be tried by a jury of his peers gave him an inestimable safeguard against the corrupt or overzealous prosecutor and against the compliant, biased, or eccentric judge."

Prior to Duncan, every state had guaranteed the right to jury trial in felony cases. Moreover, prior to the Constitution and even to the Declaration of Independence, the First Continental Congress's Declaration of Rights of 1774 had proclaimed the right to jury trial. The right to a jury trial in America was in fact as old as James I's charter to the company that settled Jamestown in 1607. Thomas Jefferson once wrote, "Were I called upon to decide whether the people had best be omitted in the Legislative or Judiciary department, I would say it is better to leave them out of the Legislative" (Jefferson, vol. 15, p. 283). William Blackstone called the right to jury trial "the palladium of English liberty" (vol. 3, p. * 379).

ALBERT W. ALSCHULER

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal Law