The Jury and Empire: The Insular Cases and the Anti-Jury Movement in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era

91 S. Cal. L. Rev. 375 (2018)

Fordham Law Legal Studies Research Paper

91 Pages Posted: 7 Apr 2017 Last revised: 19 Jun 2018

See all articles by Andrew Kent

Andrew Kent

Fordham University School of Law

Date Written: April 6, 2017


This article contributes to several debates and literatures, which have not previously been all linked together: the history of the jury in the United States, the nature of U.S. imperialism and colonial governance in Puerto Rico and the Philippines, and Progressive era legal reform. The story starts with the Insular Cases — landmark Supreme Court decisions from the early twentieth century holding that jury rights and some other constitutional guarantees did not apply in Puerto Rico and the Philippines until and unless Congress had taken decisive action to "incorporate" the territories into the union. The conventional wisdom among scholars is that the Supreme Court in these decisions shamefully ratified the U.S. government's discrimination and domination over the peoples of newly-acquired colonies. Racism and cultural chauvinism are blamed as primary causal factors. The article shows that Congress, the executive, the courts, and local legislatures in the Philippines and Puerto Rico granted almost every single right contained in the Constitution to the territorial inhabitants, with the exception of the jury. So while deep, institutional racism was certainly present and causally important, it is also true that U.S. governance in the territories was not a project of wholesale discrimination. Motivations, goals, and outcomes were complex. Protection of rights of local inhabitants was a key concern of U.S. policymakers. But the jury was considered a unique case, different than other rights.

To understand why the jury was thought uniquely unsuited for the new U.S. colonies, this article fills out a largely overlooked history of the jury in the mainland United States during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Most histories of the jury skip from the adulation of the institution at the Founding, to the Warren-Burger Courts' decisions over 150 years later that racial and gender discrimination in jury service were unconstitutional and that the criminal petit jury was a fundamental right. It turns out that the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw severe criticism of the jury by elite lawyers, the newly-created bar associations in big cities, the reformist popular press, and progressive movement leaders. Many states cut back on jury rights at the time. And the Supreme Court held then that states should not be forced to "straight jacket" themselves (in the Court's words) to the common law procedure of old England that was found in the Bill of Rights, but should be free to experiment to create more efficient criminal and civil procedure. Leaders of the anti-jury reform movement in the United States were also leading policymakers for colonial issues in Puerto Rico and the Philippines, notably William Howard Taft. Many of the same arguments against the jury were made in both contexts. Linking the anti-jury movement to the legal and political decision-making about governance of the new territories helps enrich our understanding of both.

Keywords: jury, Insular Cases, Supreme Court, imperialism, criminal procedure, nation building, progressive era

Suggested Citation

Kent, Andrew, The Jury and Empire: The Insular Cases and the Anti-Jury Movement in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (April 6, 2017). 91 S. Cal. L. Rev. 375 (2018), Fordham Law Legal Studies Research Paper, Available at SSRN:

Andrew Kent (Contact Author)

Fordham University School of Law ( email )

140 West 62nd Street
New York, NY 10023
United States

Here is the Coronavirus
related research on SSRN

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics