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Missouri cases helped shape citizens’ rights under the Constitution

Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part series that takes a look at how several Missouri cases helped shape current interpretations of citizens’ rights under the Constitution of the United States.


Daily Journal Staff Writer

On this day 218 years ago, 55 men met in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pa., to sign a document designed to guide United States government and protect the rights of its people.

Today ends a week of U.S. Constitution celebration in schools during which students studied the Preamble, researched the document and its 27 amendments on the Internet, and discussed how the Constitution affects their lives.

In a two-day series, the Daily Journal takes a look at six Missouri cases that helped shape current interpretations of citizens’ rights under the Constitution. While many other cases have gone to the U.S. Supreme Court on constitutional issues, these cases stood out during discussions with several area college professors, attorneys and teachers, as well as with several spokesmen for the Missouri Bar Association.

The cases addressed whether slaves had constitutional rights, the exemption of women on juries, restrictions on school newspapers, women’s reproductive rights, the right to refuse life-sustaining treatment and the constitutionality of executing juveniles.

Leading jurists participated in at least one case. Nanette Loughary, now an Eighth District federal judge in Missouri and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, now a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, were opposing attorneys in Duren v. Missouri.

The first three cases, in chronological order:

Scott v. Sandford

In 1846, Dred Scott and his wife Harriet, slaves owned by Irene Emerson, filed suit in St. Louis Circuit Court for their freedom. Emerson and her late husband, John, had moved with their slaves to Illinois and Wisconsin Territory – neither of which allowed slavery. Scott contended that because their owners had taken them to live in slave-free areas of the country, he and his wife deserved to be free.

Although the St. Louis Circuit Court agreed with Scott, the state appealed the case all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court. In its decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Scott was not a citizen under the Constitution because he was property. The court ruled Scott, therefore, could not enjoy equal protection from the government, and had no legal right to sue for his freedom in a court of law.

The 1857 opinion also said that Congress could not ban slavery from a federal territory.

The case contributed to increasing conflict over the issue of slavery in the years leading to the Civil War. As for Scott and his family, Emerson sold them back to Scott’s original owners later that year, when she married a man who opposed slavery. The original owners later freed Scott and his family.

The Dred Scott decision eventually was overturned by the 13th and 14th Amendments, which ended slavery and declared all people born in the United States to be citizens.

Duren v. Missouri

In 1975, Billy Duren was convicted of murder by an all-male jury in Jackson County. Duren appealed on the grounds that his jury did not represent a fair cross-section of his community. At that time, women could automatically exempt themselves from jury duty just by checking a box. As a result, the jury pool had a disproportionate percentage of women, Duren claimed.

His appeal went to the U.S. Supreme Court.

District Judge Loughary was the state’s attorney in the case. Justice Bader Ginsburg was one of two attorneys representing Duren. The case raised the issue that Jackson County pointed out the exemption to women, while women in other jurisdictions were more likely to be unaware that they could easily avoid jury duty.

“The form for that jury selection process alerted women that they could check a box and be exempted,” Loughary said earlier this week. “Women were substantially underrepresented in the pool from which jurors were being chosen.”

The case was the first and only time Loughary argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. To try a case in the high court, an attorney had to have been in practice for at least three years.

Loughary had been in practice for three years and one month. The pressure spurred her to be very well prepared, she said.

“It was a great experience,” Loughary said, who was assigned to defend the state’s position that the exemption notification was not unconstitutional.

“Originally, women were prevented from being on juries, and it wasn’t too long before this case that that changed,” Loughary recalled.

Bader Ginsberg argued that the exemption violated defendants’ rights to a fair jury by distorting the number of women jurors.

The Supreme Court ruled in Duren’s favor, ruling that “systematic exclusion of women on juries violates the Constitution’s fair-cross-section requirement.” Women no longer could have an automatic exemption from jury duty. As a result, juries better reflect the percentage of women voters in a given county.

Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier

In 1983, students in the Journalism II class at Hazelwood East High School wrote a story for the school newspaper that described three students’ experiences with pregnancy. Another story discussed the impact of divorce on students at the school. When Principal Robert Reynolds removed the stories from the May 13, 1983 issue of the paper, three of the journalism students filed suit, alleging their First Amendment rights of freedom of the press and freedom of speech were violated.

The principal argued that the first story targeted three students, even though their names weren’t used. Reynolds objected to the second story because it did not include a father’s response to his daughter’s remarks, nor did it include his consent to the story.

The district court sided with the school district, but the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and reversed the case. However, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that the students’ rights to free speech and freedom of the press had not been violated.

The high court ruled that the first amendment rights of students in school are not automatically the same as those of adults in other settings, and must be applied in light of the special nature of the school setting. Because the school newspaper was not a public forum, was largely funded by the district and was part of the educational curriculum, the school had the right to regulate content, the court ruled.

As a result, school newspapers remain subject to editing by administration and are not considered members of the free press.

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