Free Press v. Fair Trial: Supreme Court Decisions since 1807

By Douglas S. Campbell | Go to book overview
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Reynolds v. U.S.

George Reynolds v. United States Docket No. 1878-180 98 U.S. 145, 25 L.Ed. 244, 8 Otto 10 ( 1878) Motion submitted February 13, 1878. Decided February 18, 1878. Argued November 14, 15, 1878. Re-decided January 4, 1879. Modified May 5, 1879.


Reynolds v. U.S. contains the Court's first historical analysis of what constitutes an impartial juror and the very first guidelines governing the process for determining the constitutionality of a juror's opinion about the guilt or innocence of an accused. In Reid v. U.S. ( 1851) the Court only reluctantly addressed this issue, declining to set down a "general rule." Therefore, before Reynolds, the primary guidance from the Supreme Court came from Chief Justice John Marshall's ruling seventy years earlier in his role as judge in a circuit court of original jurisdiction, a role assigned to him by the Judiciary Act of 1789.

Marshall asserted that the trial judge must not take the word of prospective jurors that they have not formed an unconstitutional opinion about the accused's guilt. Instead, he said the judge should "test" jurors' assertions of impartiality by asking them to declare their lack of bias in court and then evaluating firsthand the truth of their statements. Thus Marshall felt that the trial judge should, through close questioning, evaluate the sincerity of statements by persons who had avowedly formed thoughts about the guilt of an accused.

Marshall also felt that prospective jurors must have "delivered the opinion" they "made up" before they could be considered unconstitutionally impartial. Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite noted that, while unexpressed opinions tend to indicate opinions that are lightly held, at times, unconstitutionally strong opinions do remain unexpressed by a juror.

The primary focus of the case, however, was not jury prejudice but religion. George Reynolds, personal secretary to Brigham Young, asked the Court to assert that Mormon polygamy was protected by the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. He challenged the constitutionality of a


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Free Press v. Fair Trial: Supreme Court Decisions since 1807


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