UNITED STATES CONSTITUTION 7TH AMENDMENT. THE RIGHT TO TRIAL BY JURY.
By James Otto Heiting, Former State Bar President of the State of California
“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,” (United States Constitution, Amendment 7).
How did the Seventh Amendment arise? When America was still a colony of England, judges were often influenced by the royal family and other “important interests”, and they would often rule accordingly. The Seventh Amendment was enacted to prevent oppression by a biased or corrupt court. It was meant as a guarantee that the personal interests or prejudices of certain judges would not serve to defeat the rights and responsibilities of citizens before the courts. To prevent corruption, the Seventh Amendment was written to guarantee a trial by our peers.
The Seventh Amendment has been interpreted to give people the right to a jury trial in many civil matters in federal court, but, seemingly contrary to the wording of the Amendment, not all. For example, lawsuits against the government, and admiralty matters, do not give rise to the right to have a jury decide the case. Rights to sue created by statute (versus the common law, or law created by court decision), including the ability to sue the United States Government, have jury rights created by statute and not the Seventh Amendment, according to the courts.
Along with the thought that parties are always entitled to a jury trial is the common misunderstanding that juries are always made up of twelve jurors. Typically, juries are portrayed to have twelve jurors; but sometimes the number of jurors is limited by legislative enactment for particular issues. Our U.S. Supreme Court has upheld such legislation by deciding that juries of six or greater are “sufficient” in cases to facilitate group deliberation and are “likely” to represent a cross section of the community, thus not violating the Seventh Amendment right to an effective trial by jury. States continue to recognize that capital punishment cases, however, still require a jury of twelve, a fact that suggests implicitly recognition of the value of the larger group to decide this most serious type of case.
Federal medical facilities and medical practitioners overseen by the Federal Tort Claims Act are totally exempt from a jury trial. The decision to prevent jury trials in matters such as these was criticized by Superior Court Justice Hugo Black’s dissenting opinion in a case decided in 1943 wherein he pointed out “a continuation of the gradual process of judicial erosion which in one-hundred-fifty years has slowly worn away a major portion of the essential guarantee of the Seventh Amendment,” Galloway v. United States, 319 U.S. 372, 397 (U.S. 1943).
It is a real concern that, with the current backlog of cases, the ongoing financial crisis in our courts, and the skepticism of the public and legislators as to the effectiveness of the jury system, legislation may be passed further limiting jury size (or eliminating juries), affecting more legal matters in the name of “saving time and money.” The idea of smaller juries to shorten trial length and save money may sound acceptable, but an abundant amount of studies on this subject have found, among other negatives, that smaller juries can be less likely to have effective group deliberations, important pieces of evidence or argument may not be remembered, and influence from a single person has a greater effect in a small group. This often leads to inaccurate fact-finding and verdicts. With judge-only decisions, although straying from ethical and moral concerns is rare, the same concerns as existed at the time the Seventh Amendment came into being will always haunt the administration of justice.
Ideals of administrating time, at the cost of justice, should always be unacceptable. Our Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial, originally created by our founding fathers to protect those in America from injustice, is a right to be vigorously protected.