“Constitutional Amendments” Series – Amendment VII – “The Right to Jury Trial in Civil Affairs”

Portrait of Joseph Story, the first Supreme Court Justice to write an opinion on the Seventh Amendment. Painted by George Peter Alexander Healy. (Cornell Law School – Legal Information Institute)

Amendment Seven to the Constitution was ratified on December 15, 1791. It protects the right for citizens to have a jury trial in federal courts with civil cases where the claim exceeds a certain dollar value. It also prohibits judges in these trials from overruling facts revealed by the jury. The official text is written as such:

“In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.”

The Constitutional right to a jury trial in federal civil cases has been considered by some to be an anomaly compared to the legal systems of other countries. Compared to most European countries and the Commonwealth nations (former colonies of the British Empire), the United States is currently one of the few that still grants civil jury trials as a right. As was the case with the other legal-oriented amendments in the Bill of Rights, the Seventh Amendment’s provisions for a civil jury dates back to traditional English common law. During the Middle Ages, English courts would have juries composed of people inexperienced in legal affairs to make decisions. Centuries later in the colonial era, Parliament asserted that Americans had to obey the laws that they enacted, including in their courts. In response to the increasing dislike of English laws, American juries began to nullify the ordinances passed down from the Crown. By the time of the Revolution, many of the new states’ constitutions had specifically marked down the right for citizens to have juries in civil and criminal cases. Perspectives on civil juries became more divided during the Constitutional Convention, as the Federalists were concerned that because of the states’ civil juries constant defending of debtors, the laws of contract would be neglected, or worse, nullified. When the first version of the Constitution was distributed for ratification, the Anti-Federalists demanded the addition of civil juries, on the grounds that they would be an effective defense against overreach and corruption from the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the federal government. As such, the right to civil juries was added to the Constitution in the Seventh Amendment.

The two clauses in the Seventh Amendment have generally been understood with little ambiguity, with the exception of the way one key phrase was to be interpreted: “common law.” Common law most frequently refers to the law as interpreted by the judges in courts, rather than the laws that are normally created by legislative bodies. Since the individual states had their own methods of conducting civil jury trials, and with how new the federal court system was, the question of what “common law” meant in the American context remained unanswered. Parsons v. Bedford in 1830 determined that “common law,” as interpreted by the Supreme Court, was based on the common law of England, just as the English legal system had inspired the American version. One-hundred and five years later, Dimick v. Schiedt made the final and formative assertion that the Seventh Amendment’s civil jury trial provisions was based on, and expected to be derived from, England’s common law in the year 1791, that being when the Amendment was ratified. Future Supreme Court decisions later determined that the Amendment is designed to protect the substantial details of the right (Baltimore & Carolina Line, Inc. v. Redman), and that a few departures from the traditional system were authorized, within reason (Colgrove v. Battin). In spite of the relatively few court trials that involve a jury, the Seventh Amendment was crafted with the purpose of protecting the right to have one, not just for the parties involved, but also for the jury’s purpose in protecting the legal rights of the citizen.

Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum

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