Chapter 5 Williams v. Florida

What’s in a Number? Jury Function and Jury Numbers

In: Painting Constitutional Law

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In Williams v. Florida, the Supreme Court considered the question of how many jurors are required to satisfy the Sixth Amendment’s promise of an impartial jury in a criminal case. Williams holds that, while nearly five centuries of history (and mythology) set the ideal number at twelve, a twelve-person jury was ‘not an indispensable component’ of the Sixth Amendment’s promise of an impartial jury. As a result, Florida’s decision to supply Johnny Williams with a six-person jury in his robbery prosecution neither deprived him of his Sixth Amendment right nor undermined the function of the jury. Eight years later, reflecting on Williams, the Court noted that, while there is no magical number for an impartial jury under the Sixth Amendment, whatever number is assembled must be sufficient to promote the jury’s function.

This question of number and function is the true challenge and legacy of Williams. To the extent that the Williams Court wondered about the proper number, the underlying question about the jury’s function lurked just beneath the surface of the query. The jury, after all, was more than the sum of its parts; the number of jurors mattered in facilitating the jury’s democratic function.

In his work on Williams, Xavier Cortada captures this conversion of number to function. He depicts Williams’s six jurors alone in the jury room, left to sort through the case that they watched unfold in the trial. This chapter explores the role of Johnny Williams’s six-person jury as imagined by Cortada.

Painting Constitutional Law

Xavier Cortada’s Images of Constitutional Rights

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