What Are Seventh Amendment Rights?
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 reexamined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.
The attention given in the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, to protecting individual rights and preserving the power of state governments to govern their citizens includes the right to a trial by jury in civil cases. The Seventh Amendment also lets jurors have the final say on questions of fact arising during a civil trial.
Background and historical perspective
The absence of inclusion in the Constitution ratified in 1787 of the right to a jury trial in a civil case did not go unnoticed by delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. The oversight was brought to the attention of the delegates, but an attempt to include the right in the Constitution was defeated as the convention drew to a close.
It was the imposition of British law on the colonists that made jury trials in civil cases so important. The American colonies were not represented in Parliament, so they had no say in the laws being imposed upon them by the British, particularly when it came to taxation. American juries returning verdicts against the British made their preservation essential to the colonists.
It was not until ratification of the Seventh Amendment in 1791 that the right to trial by jury in a civil case as included in the Constitution. As with the other provisions of the Bill of Rights, the right to a jury in a civil case only applied to trials in federal courts.
State constitutions and preservation of the right to a jury
There are a number of disputes between parties that make their way to the courts for resolution in the form of a civil lawsuit, including:
- Breach of contract
- Disagreements between employers and employees
- Personal injury claims
- Wrongful death
- Unfair business practices
The right to have these disputes heard and decided by a jury is taken for granted now, but the failure to include it in the constitution of each of the states could have changed procedures in civil cases.
The Supreme Court has never incorporated or extended the rights contained in the Seventh Amendment to the states. It was left to state governments to provide for jury trials in their courts.
Finality of jury verdicts
As a general rule in a civil case, the judge presiding over the trial makes decisions regarding questions of law. Juror, on the other hand, decide questions of fact. For example, whether a witness shall be allowed to testify as an expert on a particular issue depends upon application of the law pertaining to establishing the qualifications and expertise of the person. This would be a question of law for the judge to decide. However, once the judge allows the witness to testify as an expert, it is up to jurors to decide the weight to give it in deciding the case.
The Seventh Amendment does not prevent the parties in a civil case from agreeing to waive a trial by jury. State rules differ from one state to the next.