The 'Red Menace' on Trial: Jury Discrimination in Dennis
37 University of La Verne Law Review 285 (2016)
20 Pages Posted: 8 Jul 2015 Last revised: 21 Jul 2016
Date Written: June 24, 2015
In 1949, the leadership of the American Communist Party was put on trial for allegedly conspiring to teach the overthrow of the American government. The case, known as the Dennis trial, is a major part of American political and Cold War history. One of the rarely-discussed aspects of the case, however, is that the defendants argued that the jury was stacked against them: it would be composed almost exclusively of wealthy white men. The defendants' claim of jury discrimination was denied, but it can be seen as a vital step towards reforming New York's "Blue Ribbon Panel" system of jury selection, eventual Congressional legislation to end bias in jury selection, and the slow recognition by the Supreme Court that jury discrimination was more pervasive than previously thought. This Article is the first scholarly effort to explain the nature of the jury challenge in Dennis and situate the defendants' failure as part of a larger narrative of discrimination and injustice. Section II of this Article provides background on the case and establishes its importance as one of the most significant political trials of the twentieth century. Section III traces the evolution of Supreme Court jurisprudence on jury discrimination prior to the Dennis case. Section IV explains the peculiar "Blue Ribbon Panel" system of jury selection used in New York at the time for cases seen by the court system as especially serious or important. Section V dives into the heart of the Dennis defendants' claim that a skewed selection process would result in a jury that was almost wholly white, male, and upper-class. Last, Section VI discusses the aftermath of the Dennis trial and its importance both historically and legally.
Keywords: Communism, Juries, Discrimination, Show Trial, Cold War
JEL Classification: J7, K00, N42
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation