Strauder v. West Virginia 100 U.S. 303 (1880) Virginia v. Rives 100 U.S. 313 (1880) Ex Parte Virginia 100 U.S. 339 (1880)

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STRAUDER v. WEST VIRGINIA 100 U.S. 303 (1880) VIRGINIA v. RIVES 100 U.S. 313 (1880) EX PARTE VIRGINIA 100 U.S. 339 (1880)

On a day in 1880 the Supreme Court handed down three opinions that fixed the constitutional law of jury discrimination for over half a century. The effect of the three, taken collectively, barred overt state denial of the rights of blacks to serve on juries and effectively barred blacks from jury service in the South. Anything so crude as an announced and deliberate effort to exclude persons on ground of race was unconstitutional; but if official policy did not refer to race and yet blacks were systematically excluded by covert practices, the Constitution's integrity remained unimpaired. No estimate can be made of the miscarriages of justice that occurred in the South and border states where only whites sat in judgment in civil cases involving the property of blacks or in criminal cases involving their life and liberty over a period of at least fiftyfive years.

Strauder was a case in which official state policy was overtly discriminatory on racial grounds. West Virginia by statute declared that only whites might serve on juries. Justice william strong, for the Court, holding the act to be a violation of the equal protection clause of the fourteenth amendment, declared that denying citizens the right to participate in the administration of justice solely for racial reasons "is practically a brand upon them, affixed by law; an assertion of their inferiority, and a stimulant to that race prejudice which is an impediment to securing to individuals of the race that equal justice which the law aims to secure to all others." The Court also sustained the constitutionality of a section of the civil rights act of 1866 by which Congress authorized the removal of a case from a state court to a federal court in order to prevent the denial of civil rights by the state court. Justice stephen j. field and nathan clifford dissented without opinion.

In Ex Parte Virginia and J. D. Coles, the Court sustained the constitutionality of an act of Congress which provided that no qualified person should be disqualified because of race for service as a grand or petit juror in any court, state or federal. Coles, a county court judge of Virginia charged with selecting jurors, excluded from jury lists all black persons. He was indicted by the United States and was liable to be fined $5,000. On petition for a writ of habeas corpus, he alleged that the federal court had no jurisdiction over him and that the act of Congress was unconstitutional. Strong declared that under the Fourteenth Amendment, Congress could reach any act of a state that violated the right of black citizens to serve on juries or their right to be tried by juries impartially selected without regard to race. The act of Judge Coles was the act of the state of Virginia, for a state acts through its officers and agents, none of whom may deny the equal protection of the laws. By so ruling, the Court prepared the ground for the doctrine of state action. Field and Clifford, again dissenting, thought the act of Congress regulated purely local matters and destroyed state autonomy.

The effects of Strauder and Ex Parte Virginia were vitiated by the Rives decision. Two black men, indicted for the murder of a white man, sought to have their cases removed from a state court to a federal court on the ground that the grand jury that indicted them and the petit jury summoned to try them were composed entirely of whites. The prisoners claimed that the jury lists should include one third blacks, in proportion to the population, and, most important, that no blacks had ever been allowed to serve on juries in the county where they were to be tried. In this case the record did not show, as it did in the other two, overt and direct exclusion of blacks. Strong, for the Court, this time supported by Field and Clifford concurring separately, simply stated, without further ado, that the "assertions" that no blacks ever served on juries in the county "fall short" of showing the denial of a civil right or the existence of racial discrimination. The defendants might still be tried impartially. Similarly, they had no right to a jury composed in part of members of their race. A mixed jury, said the Court, is not essential to the equal protection of the laws. There was no "unfriendly legislation" in this case. In effect the Court placed upon black prisoners the burden of proving deliberate and systematic exclusion on ground of race. As a result, blacks quickly disappeared from jury service in the South.

Leonard W. Levy

(see also: Neal v. Delaware; Norris v. Alabama.)


Schmidt, Benno C. 1983 Juries, Jurisdiction, and Race Discrimination: The Lost Promise of Strauder v. West Virginia. Texas Law Review 61:1401–1499.

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Strauder v. West Virginia 100 U.S. 303 (1880) Virginia v. Rives 100 U.S. 313 (1880) Ex Parte Virginia 100 U.S. 339 (1880)

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