Landmark Supreme Court Case: Strauder v. West Virginia (1880)
Strauder v. West Virginia (1880) is the 23rd landmark Supreme Court case, the second in the Criminal Rights module, featured in the KTB Prep American Government and Civics Series designed to acquaint users with the origins, concepts, organizations, and policies of the United States government and political system. The goal is greater familiarization with the rights and obligations of citizenship at the local, state, national, and global levels and the history of our nation as a democracy. While there is overlap, these landmark cases are separated into cases addressing:
- Foreign Policy
- Science & Technology
- Public Safety
- Death Penalty
- Speech, Press, and Protest
- Criminal Justice
- Politics, Society, Freedom, and Equality
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. Article III of the U.S. Constitution created the Supreme Court and authorized Congress to pass laws establishing a system of lower courts. The Constitution elaborated neither the exact powers and prerogatives of the Supreme Court nor the organization of the Judicial Branch as a whole. Thus, it has been left to Congress and to the Justices of the Court through their decisions to develop the Federal Judiciary and a body of Federal law.
The number of Justices on the Supreme Court changed six times before settling at the present total of nine in 1869. Since the formation of the Court in 1790, there have been only 17 Chief Justices* and 102 Associate Justices, with Justices serving for an average of 16 years. On average a new Justice joins the Court almost every two years.
The Supreme Court of the United States hears about 100 to 150 appeals of the more than 7,000 cases it is asked to review every year. That means the decisions made by the 12 Circuit Courts of Appeals across the country and the Federal Circuit Court are the last word in thousands of cases.
Court of Appeals
In the federal court system’s present form, 94 district level trial courts and 13 courts of appeals sit below the Supreme Court. The 94 federal judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a court of appeals. The appellate court’s task is to determine whether or not the law was applied correctly in the trial court. Appeals courts consist of three judges and do not use a jury.
The appellate courts do not retry cases or hear new evidence. They do not hear witnesses testify. There is no jury. Appellate courts review the procedures and the decisions in the trial court to make sure that the proceedings were fair and that the proper law was applied correctly.
A court of appeals hears challenges to district court decisions from courts located within its circuit, as well as appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies. In addition, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases, such as those involving patent laws, and cases decided by the U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
The nation’s 94 trial courts are called U.S. District Courts. At a trial in a U.S. District Court, witnesses give testimony and a judge or jury decides who is guilty or not guilty — or who is liable or not liable. District courts resolve disputes by determining the facts and applying legal principles to decide who is right.
Trial courts include the district judge who tries the case and a jury that decides the case. Magistrate judges assist district judges in preparing cases for trial. They may also conduct trials in misdemeanor cases.
There is at least one district court in each state, and the District of Columbia. Each district includes a U.S. bankruptcy court as a unit of the district court.
Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases involving personal, business, or farm bankruptcy. This means a bankruptcy case cannot be filed in state court. Bankruptcy Appellate Panels (BAPs) are 3-judge panels authorized to hear appeals of bankruptcy court decisions. These panels are a unit of the federal courts of appeals, and must be established by that circuit. Five circuits have established panels: First Circuit, Sixth Circuit, Eighth Circuit, Ninth Circuit, and Tenth Circuit.
Strauder v. West Virginia (1880)
On the morning of April 18, 1872 Taylor Strauder, a former slave, murdered his wife Anna by bludgeoning her to death with two strikes from a hatchet handle to the left side of her head after having argued with her through the night about an allegation of her marital infidelity. Strauder’s step-daughter, Fannie Green, witnessed the murder, and Strauder threatened Green to remain quiet, lest she too be killed. Strauder fled the area and was arrested in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on April 25, 1872.
A grand jury at the Circuit Court for Ohio County, West Virginia returned an indictment for murder in the first degree. Strauder demurred the indictment as defective, arguing the grand jury had been selected excluding non-whites. The court overruled the arguments, then Strauder asked for and received two continuances into the May 1873 term where a jury returned a verdict of guilty after approximately 90 minutes of deliberations and sentenced him to death by hanging on July 8, 1873.
The Supreme Court of West Virginia reversed, set aside the verdict, and remanded the case with instructions that a preliminary examination take place in the county court. During Strauder’s first continuance, the State of West Virginia adopted a new state constitution in August 1872. The new state legislature reconstructed the state courts and passed a criminal procedure bill on April 3, 1873 providing criminal defendants with preliminary examinations to occur at the county court (as distinguished from the circuit court for the county). At the May 1873 term of the circuit court, Strauder made a motion requesting this examination before the county court. The circuit court denied the motion, citing the preliminary examination the circuit court had already given.
The clerk of the circuit court certified the case to the county court, which completed its preliminary examination on September 9, 1874. Strauder was remanded to the circuit court for trial. A grand jury was convened and on October 20, 1874 it returned an indictment of first degree murder. Strauder’s arraignment on the new indictment took place on November 2, 1874.
At the arraignment, Strauder and his counsel moved to quash the new indictment and to remove the case to federal court on grounds that non-white citizens were precluded by West Virginia law from grand and petit jury service. During the course of the first trial, an act regarding trial procedure had passed as part of the 1873 reconstruction of the West Virginia courts in consequence of the new state constitution; the act of March 12, 1873 provided:
[a]ll white male persons, who are twenty-one years of age and not over sixty, and who are citizens of this State, shall be liable to serve as jurors, except as herein provided.
The only exception provided regarded service as a state official. The judge denied both motions.
Strauder then demurred each count contained in the indictment and was again overruled. At that point, Strauder pleaded not guilty to the indictment, and the trial proceeded to jury selection, which resulted in an all-white jury. An objection to the composition of this jury was entered, and overruled.
The trial continued through November 4 when the case went to the jury for deliberations. On November 5, the jury returned a verdict of guilty and a sentence of death. Strauder and his counsel moved for a new trial on grounds of an impartial juror and that the jury contained no jurors of Strauder’s race, for which arguments were heard January 5, 1875. The court overruled the motions, and sentenced Strauder to death by hanging on January 9, 1875.
Arguments before the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia took place June 27, 1876. Strauder’s counsel raised 11 points of exception. The supreme court handed down its ruling on November 17, 1877, relying on the opinions of the Supreme Court of the United States in The Slaughter-House Cases (1873) and Bradwell v. Illinois to find the Fourteenth Amendment had not been “intended to protect the citizens of any State against unjust legislation by their own State.” The supreme court consequently affirmed the trial court’s denial of the motion to remove of the case to federal court as correct. Strauder’s case was then sent back to the circuit court for Ohio county for resentencing, but held over until the April 1878 term.
While awaiting resentencing, Strauder and his counsel appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States. On April 15, 1878, Chief Justice Morrison Waite granted a writ of error. The case was set for argument in the October 1879 term, and oral arguments were heard over October 20–21, 187
Strauder Legal Questions and Answers
Q: Does the state law barring blacks from jury service violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?
A: Yes. to deny blacks citizen participation in the administration of justice solely on racial grounds:
…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.Justice William Strong
7-2 decision and the first instance where the Supreme Court reversed a state court decision denying a defendant’s motion to remove his criminal trial to federal court pursuant to Section 3 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 ruling:
- A state law that excludes citizens from jury service on account of race or color is a denial of the equal protection of the law; and
- It is within Congress’s power under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment to provide for the removal to federal court those cases arising under state law where that state’s law denies a party the equal protection of their rights
The Court did not guarantee criminal defendants that the grand or petit juries involved in their case will be composed either in full or in part of members of a non-white defendant’s race, but held instead that equal protection demands only that potential jurors could not be excluded from jury service on account of their race. Additionally, the Supreme Court did not exercise its power of judicial review to strike down West Virginia’s juror qualifications statute as unconstitutional, as Strauder and his attorneys did not seek such a remedy. Instead, Strauder desired his case be removed to federal court, where he expected he could receive a venire that included freedmen.
For a case to be removed to federal court, the denial of rights must occur in the constitution or laws of the state, or in other pre-trial actions of state officials, that state courts are without power to remedy—that is, it held that the Civil Rights Act required removal be based on objectively discernible facts about the denial of rights, and not the defendant’s subjective beliefs about potential outcomes of a state-administered trial. The Supreme Court provided that the remedy for denials of equal protection occurring during trial can be found in the appeals process; only those cases where equal rights cannot be enforced before state judicial bodies are appropriate to be removed to federal court.
Next Criminal Justice Case: Hurtado v. California (1884)
Previous Criminal Justice Case: Calder v. Bull (1798)
Next Case: The Civil Rights Cases (1883)
Previous Case: Munn v. Illinois (1877)