Most people know that the 1st Amendment is about free speech, and nearly every school kid can tell you that the 2nd Amendment guarantees Americans the right to bear arms. However, many people do not understand what the 7th Amendment protects. The irony of this is that without the 7th Amendment, Americans could lose many of the other rights to which they are entitled.
Added to the Constitution in 1791, the text of the 7th Amendment reads:
“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.”
This means that in a civil case (when single persons or organizations sue each other, as opposed to a criminal charge brought by the government against a person or an organization) involving a sum that exceeds the minimum threshold (which, according to 28 U.S. Code § 1332, is currently more than $75,000 if diversity of citizenship applies, or more than $20 if diversity of citizenship does not apply), the parties involved have the right to argue their case before a jury of their peers. Further, any decision arising from a civil case such as this cannot be summarily overturned unless appropriate legal procedures are followed.
It must be noted that the 7th amendment only applies to federal cases. The Supreme Court has never ruled that the 7th amendment can be extended to state and local courts. However, most states voluntarily guarantee the right to a jury trial in civil cases. Additionally, state court cases that are decided under federal law must guarantee the right to a jury trial.
Why did the founders include this amendment?
The framers of the Constitution believed strongly in a citizen’s right to a trial by his or her peers. In fact, it was one of the key ideals for which they fought in the Revolution. The founders were worried that if judges had the sole authority to decide trials, they would take the government’s side in any issue, thus tipping the scales of justice towards those in power.
Early Americans had good reason to fear this outcome. When King George III appointed judges in the colonies, these judges tended to rule in favor of the crown. Consequently, the founders believed that the best way to ensure fair trials was to entrust the outcomes to juries composed of locals. These people likely knew the defendant(s) and understood the issues involved in a case.
The founding fathers added the 7th Amendment to the Constitution to protect the jury system from the influence of any official or subjective power. As the founders had learned from their days under colonial rule, those high in the political hierarchy had no qualms about subverting the workings of justice for their own ends.
Today, Constitutional scholars across the political spectrum agree on the necessity of protecting the civic jury system. According to Justice William Rehnquist, the right to a jury trial is an “important bulwark against tyranny and corruption, a safeguard too precious to be left to the whim of the sovereign, or, it might be added, to that of the judiciary.”
Recent abuses of our 7th Amendment rights
Pressured by special interests over the past few decades, legislatures and other government bodies across the country have passed laws that limit people’s access to the courts and restrict the power of juries, thus eroding the authority of the civil jury system. The following are a few examples of how American’s 7th Amendment rights are being violated:
1) Using internal courts. More than two dozen federal agencies, including the Social Security Administration and the Securities and Exchange Commission, rely upon their own internal court system to make decisions regarding compliance matters. According to these agencies, these internal judges (known as “administrative law judges”) are experts in their particular field. Thus, the argument goes, they are better suited to adjudicate regulatory cases than regular federal judges.
However, these agency courts do not follow the same rules as other court systems. Internal judges can disallow the testimony of expert witnesses, refuse requests for information regarding government witnesses, and limit how the defense can depose a witness or conduct discovery. Unsurprisingly, these internal courts tend to rule in favor of the agency that provides their paychecks.
2) Forcing arbitration. It is difficult nowadays to shop online, accept a job offer, or fill out an application for a credit card without having to agree to an arbitration clause. These are often hidden in the fine print in Terms of Service contracts that everyone agrees to, yet almost no one actually reads. Arbitration clauses mean that people cannot obtain certain goods or services without first relinquishing their right to jury trial.
Under these Terms of Service, if an individual wants to hold a company accountable for unfair or illegal business practices, he or she is barred from filing a class-action lawsuit. Instead, he or she must participate in arbitration, a process that often favors corporate interests. In fact, according to data from The New York Times, nearly two-thirds of those who engage in arbitration to fight fraud, excessive fees, or bad loans received zero compensation.
3) Establishing “The English Rule.” Lobbyists across the country have begun advocating for “The English Rule,” which is when the loser of a civil court trial is responsible for paying the winner’s legal fees. For example, if a person sued General Motors, he or she would be required to pay the corporation’s legal expenses if he or she lost. Obviously, this makes it very risky for any but the very wealthy to sue a large business, thus reducing access to a jury trial for all but a select few.