The seventh Amendment
by Kapp L. Johnson
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.
One of the original 10 Bill of Rights, the Seventh Amendment was adopted on March 1, 1792. It embodied the English common law practice of distinguishing civil claims that must be tried before a jury from claims and issues that may be heard by a judge alone. The amendment only applies to federal civil courts and has never been applied to state civil courts hearing disputes of state law. Nevertheless, almost every state voluntarily complies with the Seventh Amendment.
Traditionally, the right was a trial of 12 people under the direction of a judge instructing them on the law and advising them on the facts. The judge could set aside the jury’s verdict if the judge thought it contradicted law or the evidence. The only exception was in the case of an acquittal of a criminal charge. In that case, the judge cannot set aside the jury’s verdict. Further, the verdict must be unanimous. In Colgrove v. Battin, however, the Supreme Court held that rules adopted in a federal district court authorizing civil juries composed of six people were permissible under the Seventh Amendment and congressional enactment.
The amendment’s primary purpose is to preserve the common law distinction between the responsibility of the court and the jury. Issues of law are resolved by the court and issues of fact are determined by the jury under appropriate instructions from the court. Parties to a dispute, however, can waive the right to a jury trial and a judge can decide the issue.
The amendment only applies to courts that are subject to the authority of the United States. It does not generally apply to state courts. Nevertheless, when a state court is enforcing a federally created right of which the right to trial by jury is a substantial part, states may not eliminate trial by jury as to one or more of the elements. On the other hand, if a federal court is enforcing a state-created right, it will follow its own rules with regard to the respective functions between judge and jury based on the interests of the federal court system.
Kapp L. Johnson is a senior lecturer in ethics and law in the School of Management at California Lutheran University. He holds a doctorate from the University of La Verne College of Law and is a member of the California Bar Association.
The Amendment Project is a new weekly series that will appear through October, featuring the Bill of Rights and Amendments 11-27 with a brief synopsis of their purposes written by professors of California Lutheran University and CSU, Channel Islands.