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Bill of Rights: Seventh

Amendment VII: 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.

History and Rights Granted by the Seventh Amendment

On September 12, 1787, as the Convention was in its final stages, Mr. Williamson of North Carolina “observed to the House that no provision was yet made for juries in Civil cases and suggested the necessity of it.” The comment elicited some support and the further observation that because of the diversity of practice in civil trials in the states it would be impossible to draft a suitable provision. When on September 15 it was moved that a clause be inserted in Article III, § 2, to guarantee that “a trial by jury shall be preserved as usual in civil cases,” this objection seems to have been the only one urged in opposition and the motion was defeated. The omission, however, was cited by many opponents of ratification and “was pressed with an urgency and zeal . . . well-nigh preventing its ratification.” A guarantee of right to jury in civil cases was one of the amendments urged on Congress by the ratifying conventions and it was included from the first among Madison’s proposals to the House. It does not appear that the text of the proposed amendment or its meaning was debated during its passage. Continue reading from Cornell Law School

The Rarity of Juries in Civil Cases

To many Americans, jury trials seem to be the normal way of deciding civil cases. Television programs and movies show exciting scenes of juries deciding important non-criminal disputes involving individuals, government officials, and companies. The reality is different. Juries decide less than one percent of the civil cases that are filed in court. This lack of jury trials may seem strange, as the Seventh Amendment guarantees the right to jury trial in certain civil cases.

There are two main types of court systems in the United States: federal and state. The Seventh Amendment requires civil jury trials only in federal courts. This Amendment is unusual. The U.S. Supreme Court has required states to protect almost every other right in the Bill of Rights, such as the right to criminal jury trial, but the Court has not required states to hold civil jury trials. Minneapolis & St. Louis Railroad Co. v. Bombolis (1916). Nearly all of the states, however, have rights to civil jury trial in certain cases in their state constitutions.

The United States is almost the only nation that continues to require civil jury trials. Civil juries similar to those in the United States are not part of the legal traditions of the Continent of Europe or the legal systems derived from those traditions, including in Latin America and Asia. Even in England and its former colonies of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, civil jury trial has virtually been abolished. Continue reading from Constitution Center

Composition and Functions of Civil Jury

Traditionally, the Supreme Court has treated the Seventh Amendment as preserving the right of trial by jury in civil cases as it “existed under the English common law when the amendment was adopted.” The right was to “a trial by a jury of twelve men, in the presence and under the superintendence of a judge empowered to instruct them on the law and to advise them on the facts and (except in acquittal of a criminal charge) to set aside their verdict if in his opinion it is against the law or the evidence.” Decision of the jury must be by unanimous verdict. In Colgrove v. Battin, however, the Court by a five-to-four vote held that rules adopted in a federal district court authorizing civil juries composed of six persons were permissible under the Seventh Amendment and congressional enactments. By the reference in the Amendment to the “common law,” the Court thought, “the Framers of the Seventh Amendment were concerned with preserving the right of trial by jury in civil cases where it existed at common law, rather than the various incidents of trial by jury.” Continue reading from Cornell Law School
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