The Seventh Amendment lays the foundation for jury trials for civil litigants in the way criminal defendants are protected from the self-will of courts through the Sixth Amendment. The adoption of the amendment was a breakthrough in the development of the legal system in the new state. Although its application was subject to interpretation, the basic understanding of civil juries remains intact to this day. The Amendment reads as follows: “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 common law.” It was ratified on December 15, 1791.
The history of the amendment is relatively simple, although like many provisions of the US Constitution it evoked some controversy. The Amendment was discussed towards the closing of the Constitutional Convention. Mr. Williamson of North Carolina on September 12, 1787, ”observed to the House that no provision was yet made for juries in Civil cases and suggested the necessity of it” (FindLaw). This remark alerted the members of the convention to the need to include a provision that would govern civil cases and gave rise to a discussion about the necessity of such a provision. Williamson’s comment raised concerns that the new constitution would represent “the virtual abolition of the civil jury” and “very nearly doomed the ratification of the entire constitution” (Veil 2000:3).
The basic argument in favour of such a provision was the need to protect the common people from the self-willed exercise of power by the courts. The right to trial by jury was seen as fundamental principle by Americans who fought not only for independence, but also for the establishment of the state that would support basic human rights unlike the colonial powers. The right to jury trials was as central to the new state as freedom of speech and religion. The right included in the Seventh Amendment guaranteed that a person “would be judged by their neighbors – representatives of the people – not by the government” (Paulson and Nace). Thus, the amendment ensured the adherence to democratic principles that was so dear to the Founding Fathers. It also fulfilled the desires of anti-federalists who insisted on the Bill of Rights that would protect the rights of the individuals from the possible abuse by the state powers. The Seventh Amendment promotes self-government by the citizens and enhances democratic standards.
Another reason for adopting the Seventh Amendment was the sorry experience with British courts that US citizens had had. These courts were seen as often making unjust decisions to further the interests of one party over the other. Thus, the British authorities often tried to move trials from local courts that relied on juries to “Vice-Admiralty courts and other non-jury tribunals administered by judges beholden to the Crown” (Veil 2000:2). Colonists complained about this practice which they saw as violation of their rights to the Stamp Act Congress and Continental Congress. The opinion of the colonists about British authorities and their respect for the rule of the law is evident in the words of the official motion of the Second Continental Congress of July 4, 1776 that names the British kingdom’s history “a history of repeated injuries and usurpation” and says that the king “has made judges dependent on his will alone” (Croom 2004:12).The Seventh Amendment was put in place as a safeguard against the repetition of this situation.
The main objection against the inclusion of such a provision in the Constitution was the diversity of this practice across states that would make drafting a provision that would work well for all impossible. The objection “seems to have been the only one urged in opposition and the motion was defeated” (FindLaw). Although the provision about civil juries was not included in the Constitution because of the strong opposition that cited diversity as “the only challenge”, it was one of James Madison’s amendment proposals to the House of Representatives (Croom 2004:4). The proposal was ratified as a Seventh Amendment without lengthy debates and is known under this name.
The role of civil juries was recognized by a number of famous people. Thus, Hamilton suggested that civil cases will be tried for the most part in state courts where jury trials are guaranteed. In his opinion, the lack of federal trials by juries in civil cases will not really impact the realisation of the right to jury trials (Veil 2000:3).
The debate is still relevant to today’s US reality. Juries have become prominent members of the US judicial system with wide repercussions since outcomes of trials by juries are likely to be different from those of the judges. The US Department of Justice has found in a study that judges impose punitive damages in civil cases three times more often than juries and the amount of the median award is three times higher than the damages imposed by juries (Croom 2004:10). Juries have provoked criticism that focuses on the time involved in assembling the jury and deliberation times that make court trials too lengthy. In addition, jury trials are seen as costly. The arguments of cost and efficiency replaced the consideration of diversity that surfaced in the arguments of the late eighteenth century and is no longer relevant.
The civil jury is still an important shield from abuse of power by different federal agencies. Despite the desire of some representatives of the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Commerce to establish a regime of mandatory arbitration that would make resolution of disputes in the “borderless online marketplace” quicker and more efficient, many indicate that such a regime would be violation of the right to jury in civil cases set by the Seventh Amendment (Croom 2004:3). Opponents cite the Seventh Amendment to support their position, indicating also that mandatory arbitration would infringe on the sovereignty of the states and would be structurally prone to bias. In this way, the amendment ratified in 1791 is still relevant to the debates of the future of the US judicial system, serving as a safeguard against power abuse and autocracy.
Croom, Stacy L. Endangered Civil Justice: An Essay on the Value of the Jury in Civil Litigation. Annual Conference for Southern Trial Lawyers Association, 18-22 February, 2004, New Orleans, Louisiana. 22 Oct. 05 <www.ggreen.com/News%20For%20Clients/Jury%20essay.pdf>.
Find Law library. Trial by Jury in Civil Cases. 22 Oct. 05 <http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/data/constitution/amendment07/01.html>.
Paulson and Nace. Some History on Your Right to Trial by Jury. From ” The American Jury: Celebrating 200 Years of Justice By the People.” Association of Trail Lawyers of America, 1991.
22 Oct. 05 <http://www.paulsonandnace.com/r_know_history.html>.
Vail, John. Re: Alternative Dispute Resolution and Online Borderless Marketplace. United States Department of Commerce and Federal Trade Commission, 21 March 2000. 22 Oct. 05 < http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/altdisresolution/comments/vail.pdf>.