Amendment VII: Jury Trial in Civil Disputes
“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.”
American law is based on centuries-old English common law, the accumulated body of laws that are based on common sense rulings and which preserve the rights of the people. Property ownership is a fundamental right of free people, and common law establishes the rules we abide by. In a legal dispute over property, citizens have a right to a jury trial.
The text of the Declaration of Independence explicitly criticizes King George III for “depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of trial by jury.” Similar to the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of a jury trial for those accused of a crime, the Seventh Amendment guarantees a jury trial for civil disputes. The Founders believed that the flames of freedom burn brightest when citizens from all walks of life are able to apply the law to the facts of a case. As Alexander Hamilton proclaimed: “I cannot readily discern the inseparable connection between the existence of liberty, and the trial by jury in civil cases.”
A jury’s role is to examine the facts, while a judge determines and explains the law. These two roles are a fundamental part of our legal system. And judges are not allowed to overstep their bounds and become a jury of one.
The Seventh Amendment Today
The Seventh Amendment right to a civil trial remains relatively healthy. America’s courts are full of private lawsuits where people are attempting to convince a jury that someone wrongfully injured them, violated their civil rights or terminated their employment. But even the Seventh Amendment isn’t safe from today’s assault on liberty.
Many modern courts use a legal theory known as the “complexity exception,” whereby a judge may take a civil lawsuit out of the hands of a jury because the issues are supposedly too complicated for the jurors to understand. This is most common in patent disputes, which often involve complex scientific principles. But this is in direct contravention of the Seventh Amendment. What gives the government the authority to determine that something is too complicated for a jury to understand?
Many corporations such as credit card companies and others that deal with consumer agreements are also attempting to surreptitiously undermine Americans’ Seventh Amendment rights by nullifying the customer’s right to sue. Hidden within the fine print of the often lengthy consumer contracts is the provision that customers can no longer take the corporation to court but, rather, must appear before an arbitration panel—a body that often limits the evidence that can be presented, prevents cross-examination and does not allow an appeal of their decision.
The Seventh Amendment guarantees citizens the right to a jury trial. However, when the populace has no idea of what's in the Constitution that inevitably translates to an ignorant jury incapable of distinguishing justice and the law from their own preconceived notions and fears. As Mark Twain famously observed, "The jury system puts a ban upon intelligence and honesty, and a premium upon ignorance, stupidity and perjury. It is a shame that we must continue to use a worthless system because it was good a thousand years ago...I desire to tamper with the jury law. I wish to so alter it as to put a premium on intelligence and character, and close the jury box against idiots, blacklegs, and people who do not read newspapers."