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Amendment VII – Common Law Suits – Jury Trial (1791)

The Seventh Amendment states: “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.”

The Seventh Amendment guarantees the right to a jury trial in civil cases where the amount in controversy exceeds twenty dollars.  Before invoking the protections of the Seventh Amendment, a suit must satisfy four requirements. 

First, the suit must assert a civil claim as opposed to criminal or statutory claim.  However, claims brought under a federal statute that confer a right to trial by jury also implicate the Seventh Amendment

Second, the suit must be brought in federal court before a litigant may invoke the Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial.  This right is one of the few liberties enumerated in the Bill of Rights that has not been made applicable to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment.  Therefore, the Seventh Amendment does not apply in state court even when a litigant is enforcing a right created by federal law.

Third, the suit must assert a claim for more than $20, which at the time of the amendment’s ratification in 1791 was a large sum.

Fourth, a lawsuit must assert a claim that is essentially legal in nature before the Seventh Amendment applies.  There is no right to a jury trial in civil actions involving claims that are essentially equitable in nature.  Equitable claims are those lawsuits that seek injunctions, specific performance, and other types of non monetary remedies. Lawsuits that seek money damages, conversely, are traditionally treated as legal claims. The right to a jury is denied if the monetary relief sought is only “incidental” to an equitable claim for an injunction.  Moreover, a court will deny a litigant’s request for a jury trial even if a lawsuit is couched in terms of a legal claim for monetary relief but asserts an essentially equitable claim.     

There is no right to trial by jury for lawsuits that involve issues of maritime law or admiralty rights, or proceedings that relate to the naturalization or deportation of aliens.  Litigants also have no Seventh Amendment right to trial by jury in lawsuits brought against the federal government.

The Seventh Amendment also expressly forbids federal judges from re-examining any fact tried by a jury except as allowed by the common law.  This provision has been interpreted to mean that no court, trial or appellate, may overturn a jury verdict that is reasonably supported by the evidence.  A jury must be allowed to hear a lawsuit from start to end unless it presents a legal claim that is completely lacking an evidentiary basis.

Together with the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment, the Seventh Amendment guarantees civil litigants the right to an impartial jury.  A juror’s impartiality may be compromised by communications with sources outside the courtroom, such as friends, relatives, and members of the media.  The presence of even one partial, biased, or prejudiced juror creates a presumption that the Seventh Amendment has been violated.  A litigant seeking to overcome this presumption bears a heavy burden to establish the harmlessness of an unauthorized jury communication.

Although every juror must be impartial, there is no Seventh Amendment right to a jury of 12 persons.  The Supreme Court has held that the quality of the deliberation process is not impaired when the size of a jury is reduced from twelve to six members. Regardless of a jury’s size, the Seventh Amendment requires unanimity among jurors who hear civil cases in federal court.  Conversely, the sixth amendment to the Constitution does not require juror unanimity in criminal trials, except in death penalty cases.

Inside Amendment VII – Common Law Suits – Jury Trial (1791)