Strauder v. West Virginia 1879

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Strauder v. West Virginia 1879

Appellant: Taylor Strauder

Appellee: State of West Virginia

Appellant's Claim: That West Virginia violated his constitutional rights by excluding African Americans from the jury selection process.

Chief Lawyers for Appellant: Charles Devans and George O. Davenport

Chief Lawyers for Appellee: Robert White, Attorney General of West Virginia, and James W. Green

Justices for the Court: Joseph P. Bradley, John Marshall Harlan, Ward Hunt, Samuel Freeman Miller, William Strong, Noah Haynes Swayne, Morrison Remick Waite

Justices Dissenting: Nathan Clifford, Stephen Johnson Field

Date of Decision: March 1, 1880

Decision: The Supreme Court reversed Strauder's murder conviction.

Significance: With Strauder, the Supreme Court said African American men have the same right as white men to serve on juries.

The American Declaration of Independence, written in 1776, says all men are created equal. Shamefully, the United States of America did not treat all men equally when it was born that year. White men owned African Americans as slaves, forcing them to work on plantations to make the white men wealthy.

The United States finally outlawed slavery with the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. Prejudice against African Americans remained high, however, in the former slave states. There was concern that these states would discriminate against newly freed slaves by treating them differently under the law. To prevent that, the United States adopted the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868.

The Equal Protection Clause is an important part of the Fourteenth Amendment. It says states may not deny anyone "the equal protection of the laws." This means states must apply their laws equally to all citizens. In Strauder v. West Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court had to decide whether a law that prevented African Americans from serving on juries violated the Equal Protection Clause.

White Men Only

Taylor Strauder was an African American who was charged with murder in Ohio County, West Virginia, on 20 October 1874. A West Virginia law said only white men could serve as jurors. Strauder did not think he could get a fair trial in a state that did not allow African Americans to serve on juries. In fact, he thought West Virginia's law violated the Equal Protection Clause by treating African Americans unequally.

A federal law said a defendant could have his case moved from state court to federal court whenever the state court was violating its citizens' equal rights. Strauder used this law to ask the state court to move his trial to a federal court. The state court refused and forced Strauder to stand trial in West Virginia. After he was convicted, Strauder appealed his case to the Supreme Court of West Virginia. When he lost there too, Strauder appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Jury of His Peers

With a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court reversed Strauder's conviction. Writing for the Court, Justice William Strong said West Virginia violated the Equal Protection Clause by preventing African Americans from serving as jurors. Strong said under the Equal Protection Clause, "the law in the States shall be the same for the black as for the white; that all persons, whether colored or white, shall stand equal before the laws of the States, and . . . that no discrimination shall be made against [African Americans] because of their color."


S electing a jury is a two-stage process. In the first stage, a court uses local records to create a pool of people from the community. This pool is called a venire. The venire must contain a cross-section of the community. That means all races of Americans must be eligible to be selected for the venire. In the second stage, the judge and lawyers select twelve people from the venire to be the jury for a specific case. The jury does not have to contain a cross-section of the community. That means juries often are dominated by people from one race. When that happens, the public sometimes wonders whether race affected a jury's decision.

For example, in 1991, four white Los Angeles police officers beat an African American motorist named Rodney G. King. In 1992, the officers faced criminal charges in the mostly white Los Angeles suburb of Simi Valley. The jury, which contained no African Americans, found the officers not guilty of almost all charges against them. Many Americans thought racial prejudice affected the jury's verdict.

Two years later, football star O.J. Simpson's ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, was murdered in Los Angeles along with her boyfriend, Ronald L. Goldman. Simpson, an African American, faced murder charges for the crime in 1995. At his trial, nine of the twelve jurors were African American. When the jury found Simpson not guilty, many Americans again believed racial prejudice affected the verdict. Some even thought the verdict was payback for the King verdict three years earlier.

A law that allows only whites to be jurors treats citizens unequally. Justice Strong asked what white men would think about a law that allowed only African Americans to be jurors, or that excluded Irish Americans from being jurors. Such laws would defeat the very purpose of a criminal trial, which is to allow a man to be judged by a jury of his peers-his neighbors, fellows, and associates.

Justice Strong made it clear that Strauder did not have a right to have a certain number of African Americans on his jury. He only had the right to have the jury selected from a group of citizens that included African Americans. Moreover, West Virginia was free to apply non-racial requirements for jurors. For example, West Virginia could require jurors to be men who had reached a certain age and received an education. It simply could not exclude entire races of people from ever serving as jurors.


With Strauder, the Supreme Court gave African Americans the right to serve as jurors in the United States. States, however, often got around this by requiring jurors to have a certain education and reading ability. Newly freed slaves in the late 1800s usually could not afford a good education. African Americans spent many more decades fighting through such prejudice to enjoy their right to serve as jurors. Moreover, it was not until 1975 in Taylor v. Louisiana that the Supreme Court struck down all laws that made it difficult for women to serve as jurors.

Suggestions for further reading

Claireborne, William. "Acquitted, O.J. Simpson Goes Home." Washington Post, October 4, 1995.

Guinther, John. The Jury in America. New York: Facts on File Publications, 1988.

Morin, Richard. "Polls Uncover Much Common Ground on L.A. Verdict." Washington Post, May 11, 1992

Summer, Lila E. The American Heritage History of the Bill of Rights: The Seventh Amendment. New Jersey: Silver Burdett Press, Inc., 1991.

Wolf, Robert V. The Jury System. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1999.

Zerman, Melvyn Bernard. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt: Inside the American Jury System. New York: Crowell, 1981.

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Strauder v. West Virginia 1879

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