Burch v. Louisiana

PETITIONER: Burch
RESPONDENT: Louisiana
LOCATION: Trial Court

DOCKET NO.: 78-90
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)
LOWER COURT: Louisiana Supreme Court

CITATION: 441 US 130 (1979)
ARGUED: Feb 22, 1979
DECIDED: Apr 17, 1979

ADVOCATES:
Jack Peebles - Argued the cause for the petitioners
Louise Korns - Argued the cause for the respondent

Facts of the case

Burch was found guilty by a nonunanimous six-member jury of showing obscene films. The court imposed a suspended prison sentence of two consecutive seven-month terms and fined him $1,000.

Question

Does a conviction by a nonunanimous six-member jury in a state criminal trial for a nonpetty offense violate the accused's right to a trial by jury as protected by the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments?

Media for Burch v. Louisiana

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 22, 1979 in Burch v. Louisiana

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - April 17, 1979 in Burch v. Louisiana

Warren E. Burger:

The judgment and opinion of the Court in Burch against Louisiana will be announced by Mr. Justice Rehnquist.

William H. Rehnquist:

The Louisiana Constitution and Code of Criminal Procedure provide that nonpetty criminal cases shall be tried before a jury of six-persons, five of whom must concur to render a verdict.

We granted certiorari in this particular case to decide whether conviction by a nonunanimous six-person jury in a state criminal trial for a nonpetty offense, as contemplated by provisions of the Louisiana law violates the right of an accused to trial by jury guaranteed by the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments.

The facts are quite simple.

Petitioners, Burch and Wrestle, Inc., a corporation were jointly tried before a six-person jury on obscenity charges.

Both were found guilty and a poll of the jury after verdict indicated that the jury had voted unanimously to convict Wrestle, Inc. and had voted 5-to-1 to convict Burch.

On appeal, the Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed petitioner’s convictions holding that conviction by a nonunanimous six-person jury does not offend the constitution.

We hold first in our opinion that Wrestle, Inc. lack standing to challenge the constitutionality of the provisions of Louisiana law that allow a conviction by a nonunanimous six-person jury because it was in fact convicted by a unanimous six-member jury.

And since we held just last term in Ballew against Georgia, the conviction by a six-member jury is constitutional. We affirm the conviction of Wrestle, Inc.

While the question as to Burch is a close one, we further hold that Burch who was convicted by the nonunanimous six-person jury was deprived of his constitutional right to trial by a jury.We therefore reverse his conviction.

Our cases have held that the constitution permits juries of less than 12 members but that it requires at least six.

And we have approved the use of certain nonunanimous verdicts in cases involving 12 member juries.

This case lies at the intersection of our cases on jury size and on unanimity.

We don’t pretend to see a bright line below which the number of jurors participating in the trial or verdict would not permit the jury to function the manner required by our prior cases but it is inevitable that lines must be drawn somewhere if the substance of the jury trial right is to be preserved.

We believe that conviction by unanimous six-person juries sufficiently threatens the substance of the jury trial rights so as to violate the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States constitution.

And we therefore reverse Burch’s conviction.

Mr. Justice Stevens has filed a concurring opinion.

Mr. Justice Brennan has filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part in which Mr. Justice Stewart and Mr. Justice Marshall has joined.

Warren E. Burger:

Thank you Mr. Justice Rehnquist.