Duncan v. Louisiana,
391 U.S. 145 (1968)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145 (1968)

Duncan v. Louisiana

No. 410

Argued January 17, 1968

Decided May 20, 1968

391 U.S. 145


Under Louisiana law, simple battery is a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum of two years' imprisonment and a $300 fine. Appellant was convicted of simple battery and sentenced to 60 days in prison and a fine of $150. He had requested a jury trial, which was denied because the Louisiana Constitution grants jury trials only in cases where capital punishment or imprisonment at hard labor may be imposed. The Louisiana Supreme Court denied certiorari.


1. Since trial by jury in criminal cases is fundamental to the American scheme of justice, the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees a right of jury trial in all criminal cases which, were they tried in a federal court, would come within the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of trial by jury. Pp. 391 U. S. 147-158.

2. The penalty authorized for a particular crime is of major relevance in determining whether it is a serious one subject to the mandates of the Sixth Amendment, and it is sufficient here, without defining the boundary between petty offenses and serious crimes, to hold that a crime punishable by two years in prison is a serious crime, and that appellant was entitled to a jury trial. Pp. 391 U. S. 159-162.

250 La. 253, 195 So.2d 142, reversed and remanded.

Page 391 U. S. 146

Primary Holding

The Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial applies to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment, except in the cases of very minor crimes.


In Louisiana, the right to a jury trial was available only to defendants who could face either capital punishment or imprisonment at hard labor if they were convicted. Duncan, an African-American boy, was charged with simple battery upon a white boy. The evidence was unclear as to whether he had merely touched the other boy or actually slapped him. He was convicted by a judge after his request for a jury trial was denied because simple battery did not fall within the categories that provided a right to a jury. Duncan argued on appeal that the unavailability of a jury violated his rights under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments.



  • Byron Raymond White (Author)
  • Earl Warren
  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr.
  • Thurgood Marshall

The right to a fair trial is central to the American system of jurisprudence, and it dates back through centuries of the Anglo-American tradition. It provides defendants with protection against aggressive prosecutors and judges as well as malicious prosecution. Crimes that may be punished by no more than six months in jail do not give rise to this right, assuming that they are otherwise petty offenses. All other crimes do give rise to this right, since the potential penalty imposed upon a conviction is the key factor in determining whether the right applies. However, defendants may choose to waive a jury trial if they wish.


  • John Marshall Harlan II (Author)
  • Potter Stewart

Due process may be violated in the criminal justice system only if the defendant was denied an element of fundamental procedural fairness. Judges are not inherently unfair, so it goes too far to say that a jury trial is required to meet this standard.


  • Abe Fortas (Author)


  • Hugo Lafayette Black (Author)
  • William Orville Douglas

Case Commentary

Rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment are almost always extended to the states, so a decision that seemed groundbreaking at the time seems straightforward in retrospect.

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