Case Summary

315 U.S. 60 (1942)
Supreme Court of the United States
Argued 13-14 November 1941.
Decided 19 January 1942.

First_woman_juryWhen the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920, women gained the Constitutional right to vote. But it was not until decades later that women’s equal right to serve as jurors would also be recognized. Glasser v. United States was one important milestone along the path to legal recognition of the equal juror rights of women.

Petitioners Glasser and Kretske were United States attorneys who prosecuted liquor cases in the Northern District of Illinois in the 1930s, after the end of Prohibition. Petitioner Roth was a private attorney who represented a number of defendants involved in such cases. The three petitioners, along with other co-defendants, were prosecuted for and convicted of being involved in a bribery conspiracy in which prosecutors took bribes from defendants in exchange for recommending dismissal of charges against them or ensuring that the grand jury would not indict.

By order of trial judge Patrick Thomas Stone, the jury in this case deliberated beginning around 3:30 pm and continued through the night, having deliberated for about 16 hours before returning guilty verdicts for all defendants at 7:20 am the next morning. Reportedly, the jury was deadlocked 11-1 in favor of conviction for several hours, with the lone holdout being a woman.

Glasser, Kretske, and Roth appealed their convictions on several bases—two of which were the exclusion of women from the grand jury and from the trial jury pools. (There were also other matters at issue.) No women were on the grand jury, and although the defendants’ jury consisted of six men and six women, the only women who were eligible were members of the League of Women Voters and had completed a jury training class taught by a local prosecutor.

The Supreme Court ruling in Glasser had an historic effect regarding gender-based discrimination on juries. Glasser was unique among jury discrimination cases in that it was the first to invoke the Sixth Amendment and its impartial jury clause instead of the Fourteenth Amendment or the equal protection clause of the United States Constitution.

The Supreme Court ruled on both the matter of women on the grand jury (which was composed entirely of men in this case) and on the trial jury (which was composed of six men, plus six women selected by a special screening process that did not apply to men).

As to the matter of the absence of women on the grand jury, the Court ruled that due to the recent change in the law to include women on grand juries, the Court ruled that it was not error to omit the names of women from federal grand jury lists because in most counties they were not yet required to be included the state jury lists.

However, regarding the systematic biasing of women jurors by requiring them to be members of a specific organization and to take jury training from a prosecutor, the Court ruled that:

The deliberate selection of jurors from the membership of particular private organizations definitely does not conform to the traditional requirements of jury trial. No matter how high-principled and imbued with a desire to inculcate public virtue such organizations may be, the dangers inherent in such a method of selection are the more real when the members of those organizations, from training or otherwise, acquire a bias in favor of the prosecution. The jury selected from the membership of such an organization is then not only the organ of a special class, but, in addition, it is also openly partisan. If such practices are to be countenanced, the hard-won right of trial by jury becomes a thing of doubtful value, lacking one of the essential characteristics that have made it a cherished feature of our institutions.

The majority opinion in Glasser is also the first from the Supreme Court to refer to the jury as a “cross-section of the community”:

Jurors in a federal court are to have the qualifications of those in the highest court of the State, and they are to be selected by the clerk of the court and a jury commissioner… And, its exercise must always accord with the fact that the proper functioning of the jury system, and, indeed, our democracy itself, requires that the jury be a “body truly representative of the community,” and not the organ of any special group or class. If that requirement is observed, the officials charged with choosing federal jurors may exercise some discretion to the end that competent jurors may be called. But they must not allow the desire for competent jurors to lead them into selections which do not comport with the concept of the jury as a cross-section of the community. Tendencies, no matter how slight, toward the selection of jurors by any method other than a process which will insure a trial by a representative group are undermining processes weakening the institution of jury trial, and should be sturdily resisted. That the motives influencing such tendencies may be of the best must not blind us to the dangers of allowing any encroachment whatsoever on this essential right. Steps innocently taken may, one by one, lead to the irretrievable impairment of substantial liberties.

(emphasis added)

Women’s participation in juries was not settled by Glasser v. United States. The Supreme Court would revisit it again several times in later years including in:
Hoyt v. Florida (1961), upholding state laws that did not make jury duty mandatory for women
Taylor v. Louisiana (1975), striking down such laws
Duren v. Missouri (1979), ruling that women were not permitted to opt out of jury duty on request and were not automatically exempted from jury duty by failing to appear
J.E.B. v. Alabama (1994), ruling that peremptory challenges based solely on a prospective juror’s sex were unconstitutional

Case Documents

Glasser v. United States, 315 US 60 – Supreme Court 1942

Photo Credit: By Library of Congress, originally from Bain News Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.