Williams v. Florida

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399 U.S. 78 (1970), argued 4 Mar. 1970, decided 22 June 1970 by vote of 7 to 1; White for the Court, Marshall in dissent, Blackmun not participating. Pursuant to state law, Williams was tried and convicted of a felony by a jury of six persons—the six-person jury having been adopted by Florida for all but capital cases in 1967. Williams had filed a pretrial motion to impanel a jury of twelve, arguing that the smaller jury would deprive him of his Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury. Williams was sentenced to life imprisonment. The Supreme Court approved the use of six-person juries in state criminal cases and affirmed the judgment.

Williams was the first in a series of cases decided by the Court during the 1970s that overturned centuries of legal tradition, namely, the long-established universal practice and common understanding that the constitutionally required trial jury consisted of twelve persons who decided unanimously: Landry v. Hoepfner (1988), Colgrove v. Battin (1973), Ballew v. Georgia (1978), Johnson v. Louisiana (1972), Apodaca v. Oregon (1972), and Burch v. Louisiana (1979). Williams held that six-person state criminal juries were constitutionally adequate because they were functionally equivalent to twelve-person juries. The ruling was particularly unexpected because only two years earlier the Court had extended the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury to the states in Duncan v. Louisiana (1968).

Nearly all commentators on Williams regarded the Court's reasoning and sense of evidence as bizarre. A close reading of Justice Byron White's opinion made it clear that there was no constitutional or factual support for the ruling. The Court cited several items of “evidence” to support its assertion of functional equivalence—ranging from a statement that “it could be argued that there would be no differences,” to a trial judge's thought on the economies of smaller juries. None of the items were competent evidence and most of them were not even relevant to the issue at hand.

The reviews of Williams were scathing. The only difference in opinion was whether the Court had been willfully or naively ignorant. Three years later in Colegrove v. Battin (1973), which authorized six-person civil juries for the federal courts, the Court answered the question in favor of willfulness. It boldly reasserted the Williams “proofs,” added further flawed materials to the evidentiary array, and rebuked the critics of Williams as unpersuasive. For whatever reasons, the Court wanted smaller juries and got them.

Peter W. Sperlich

Subjects: Law.

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