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Duncan V. Louisiana: How Bigotry in the Bayou Led to the Federal Regulation of State Juries

27 Pages Posted: 30 Mar 2005 Last revised: 11 Jul 2014

Nancy J. King

Vanderbilt University - Law School

Date Written: March 8, 2005


This essay tells the fascinating story of Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145 (1968), the case in which the United States Supreme Court held that the Constitution guaranteed to state defendants the right to a jury trial. The conflict between parish officials and Gary Duncan grew out of the violent response of white residents to school desegregation, and grew into a fight for the rights of minority citizens to secure legal counsel of their choice. The decision also became the focus of one of the most fundamental controversies in constitutional law, a decision in which the justices openly debated how federal guarantees should be applied against the states. The Court's selective incorporation approach in Duncan, hardly controversial now, was an explosive state's rights issue at the time. As Justice Brennan later wrote, it was in Duncan that the Court attempted to explain the theoretical basis for its decisions requiring the states to adhere to certain provisions of the Bill while excluding others. Duncan's holding that the Due Process Clause limits a state's power to deny jury trials was a key element of the Warren Court's expansive efforts to ensure that the criminal process would not be used as a weapon against those struggling to assert their civil rights. Post-Duncan developments, including Blakely v. Washington, are also discussed.

Suggested Citation

King, Nancy J., Duncan V. Louisiana: How Bigotry in the Bayou Led to the Federal Regulation of State Juries (March 8, 2005). Vanderbilt Public Law Research Paper No. 05-04. Available at SSRN:

Nancy King (Contact Author)

Vanderbilt University - Law School ( email )

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