Today marks the 138th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case of Strauder v. West Virginia. Strauder was a monumental decision as it was the first application of the newly ratified 14th amendment to criminal law. The case also established the basic Constitutional principle that laws cannot categorically deny African-Americans the ability to sit on a jury.
The case behind Strauder was unfortunately all to common for African-Americans in the United States criminal justice system. In October 1874 Taylor Strauder was arrested for the murder of white man in Wheeling West Virginia. Mr. Strauber knew that West Virginia at the time had a law that excluded everyone but white men from the jury pool. At the time, it was very common for African-Americans to be brought to trial for charges with little or no evidence and found guilty by all white juries. Before Trial, Mr. Strauber sought to have his murder case moved to Federal Court which allowed for African-Americans to serve on the jury. However, Mr. Strauber’s petition was denied, and he was found guilty of murder by an all-white jury.
Mr. Strauber was sentenced to death, and appealed his conviction on the grounds that his constitutional rights had been violated by having all African-Americans excluded from the jury pool. However, both the West Virginia Appeals Court, and The Supreme Court of West Virginia affirmed the constitutionality of the exclusion of all African-American Jurors. Mr Strauber then sought a writ of certiorari from the Supreme Court and was granted cert in mid-1879.
The Supreme Court heard arguments on October 20th and 21st 1879. Mr. Strauber’s argument was very simple. The newly ratified 14th amendment mandated equal protection under the law for all citizens, reguardless of race. Mr. Strauber argued that he had been denied that right because West Varina’s law excluding African Americans did not allow him to have equal protection under the law as his white counterparts.
The State of West Virginia argued that the law preventing African-Americans from sitting on jurors did not violate equal protection because all African-Americans were excluded equally.
The Supreme Court came to its decision on March 1st, 1880. In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court held that West Virginia had violated the 14th amendment with its law excluding African American’s from the jury pool. The Majority, lead by Justice William Strong held that the categorical exclusion of African-Americans was exactly the kind of law the 14th amendment was meant to prevent. The Court did not however go as far to say that a jury must include African-Americans, have an equally balanced jury pool, or that African-Americans could be stricken from a jury because of their race. Finally, the Court reversed Mr. Strauber’s conviction and remanded it for a new trial.
The two dissenting Justices, led by Justice Stephen J. Field argued that the 14th amendment only applied to civil rights, and serving on a jury was not a civil right.
While Strauder was a relatively limited holding, it was a landmark case for the newly ratified 14th amendment. This case marked the first time a criminal conviction had been overturned based upon constitutional guarantees on criminal procedure. The case is still good law and stands for the basic proposition that people cannot be categorically denied from juries based upon race. With Experienced Legal Representation, you can make sure your constitutional rights are protected.
 Strauder v. West Virginia, 100 U.S. 303 (1879)