Race, Jury Selection, and Strauder v. West Virginia

jury selection

jury selection

My Country – Race and Jury Selection

No one wants to receive the jury duty notice on the mail. We all try to think of the many ways to get out of it because it seems like a waste of time. But most of us have the privilege to know that the jury should include people like us. For most of our country’s history, people have gone one trial without this feeling.

On May 2, 1881, Justice Douglas recounts that the Supreme Court laid down rules that set aside the convictions of African-Americans when the government excluded other African-Americans from jury duty. Douglas notes that this does require African-Americans on every jury or a requirement of proportionate representation. As long as a jury pool must reflect the composition of the community, every person must be eligible for jury duty. Simple concept really?

Strauder v. West Virginia, 100 U.S. 303 (1880)

In 1880, West Virginia excluded African-Americans from juries. An all-white jury convicted Taylor Strauder, an African-American, of murder. Strauder appealed his conviction.

The Court held that the exclusion of African-Americans from juries denied equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. Justice Story wrote:

The very idea of a jury is a body of men composed of the peers or equals of the person whose rights it is selected or summoned to determine — that is, of his neighbors, fellows, associates, persons having the same legal status in society as that which he holds.

Additionally, the Court noted that the Fourteenth Amendment did not limit the number of rights protected.  Since it spoke in general terms and in prohibitive terms about rights and immunities, no one could lose anything that deprived them of life, liberty, or property.

Ironically, the Court upheld the right of states to bar women or other classes from juries by holding. A state could continue to select only men, citizens, people of certain ages, or people with certain educational qualifications. Justice Story noted that he did not believe the Fourteenth Amendment intended to end discrimination on anything other than race. Luckily, eventually, courts realized Justice Story was wrong. The Fourteenth Amendment’s protections apply to everyone.

Dissent in Ex Parte Virginia

Justices Field and Clifford dissented in a fellow case. In Ex Parte Virginiaa Pittsylvania County judge, James D. Coles was indicted in a U.S. district court for violating the federal Civil Rights Act of 1875 by excluding black men from juries.  The Supreme Court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees citizens equal protection under the law, authorized Congress to require that states not exclude African Americans from juries.

The dissenter argued that the Fourteenth Amendment did not affect jury duty. “The equality of the protection secured extends only to civil rights, as distinguished from those which are political or arise from the form of the government and its mode of administration.” Everyone would have the same security of his person and property. Everyone had the same rights to redress wrongs and enforce contracts. All of the same rules of evidence and civil procedure applied to everyone. No impediments on the acquisition of property or pursuit of happiness would be tolerated. But all political rights from the government would remain the same.

They defined political rights as “conditioned and dependent upon the discretion of the elective or appointing power, whether that be the people acting through the ballot or one of the departments of their government.” In other words, we actually did need the Voting Rights Act.

They rest reads like an “All Lives Matter” poster. If African-Americans can only get fair trials with African-Americans on the jury, then that’s racism. At no point does the idea of an African-American serving on a jury judging a white person. But then again, most likely these Justices never thought that would happen either.


In 1883, the Supreme Court overturned the entire Civil Rights Act of 1875 at issue in Ex Parte Virginia. The Civil Rights Cases brought upon Jim Crow. And put into place everything that the dissenters in Ex Parte Virginia dreamed. However, for a short amount of time, the shine of the Fourteenth Amendment  brightened up a dark country. But for the next sixty years, separate but equal became the law of the land.

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