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CRS Annotated Constitution

Seventh Amendment -- Table of ContentsPrev | Next
SEVENTH AMENDMENT
CIVIL TRIALS

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.

TRIAL BY JURY IN CIVIL CASES

The Right and the Characteristics of the Civil Jury

History.—On September 12, 1787, as the Convention was in its final stages, Mr. Williamson of North Carolina “observed to the House that no provision was yet made for juries in Civil cases and suggested the necessity of it.” The comment elicited some support and the further observation that because of the diversity of practice in civil trials in the States it would be impossible to draft a suitable provision.1 When on September 15 it was moved that a clause be inserted in Article III, § 2, to guarantee that “a trial by jury shall be preserved as usual in civil cases,” this objection seems to have been the only one urged in opposition and the motion was defeated.2 The omission, however, was cited by many opponents of ratification and “was pressed with an urgency and zeal . . . well–nigh preventing its ratification.”3 A guarantee of right to jury in civil cases was one of the amendments urged on Congress by the ratifying conventions4 and it was included from the first among Madison’s proposals to the House.5 It does not appear that the text[p.1452]of the proposed amendment or its meaning was debated during its passage.6

Composition and Functions of Civil Jury.—Traditionally, the Supreme Court has treated the Seventh Amendment as preserving the right of trial by jury in civil cases as it “existed under the English common law when the amendment was adopted.”7 The right was to “a trial by a jury of twelve men, in the presence and under the superintendence of a judge empowered to instruct them on the law and to advise them on the facts and (except in acquittal of a criminal charge) to set aside their verdict if in his opinion it is against the law or the evidence.”8 Decision of the jury must be by unanimous verdict.9 In Colgrove v. Battin,10 however, the Court by a five–to–four vote held that rules adopted in a federal district court authorizing civil juries composed of six persons were permissible under the Seventh Amendment and congressional enactments. By the reference in the Amendment to the “common law,” the Court thought, “the Framers of the Seventh Amendment were concerned with preserving the right of trial by jury in civil cases where it existed at common law, rather than the various incidents of trial by jury.”11

The Amendment has for its primary purpose the preservation of “the common law distinction between the province of the court and that of the jury, whereby, in the absence of express or implied consent to the contrary, issues of law are resolved by the court and issues of fact are to be determined by the jury under appropriate[p.1453]instructions by the court.”12 But it “does not exact the retention of old forms of procedure” nor does it “prohibit the introduction of new methods of ascertaining what facts are in issue” or new rules of evidence.13 Those matters which were tried by a jury in England in 1791 are to be so tried today and those matters which, as in equity, were tried by the judge in England in 1791 are to be so tried today,14 and when new rights and remedies are created “the right of action should be analogized to its historical counterpart, at law or in equity, for the purpose of determining whether there is a right of jury trial,” unless Congress has expressly prescribed the mode of trial.15

Courts in Which the Guarantee Applies.—The Amendment governs only courts which sit under the authority of the United States,16 including courts in the territories17 and the District of Columbia,18 and does not apply generally to state courts.19 But when a state court is enforcing a federally created right, of which the right to trial by jury is a substantial part, the States may not eliminate trial by jury as to one or more elements.20 Ordinarily, a federal court enforcing a state–created right will follow its own rules with regard to the allocation of functions between judge and jury, a rule the Court based on the “interests” of the federal court system, eschewing reliance on the Seventh Amendment but noting its influence.21

Waiver of the Right.—Parties may enter into a stipulation waiving a jury and submitting the case to the court upon an agreed[p.1454]statement of facts, even without any legislative provision for waiver.22 Prior to adoption of the Federal Rules, Congress had, “by statute, provided for the trial of issues of fact in civil cases by the court without the intervention of a jury, only when the parties waive their right to a jury by a stipulation in writing.”23 Under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, any party may make a timely demand for a trial by jury of any issue triable of right by a jury by serving upon the other parties a demand therefor in writing, and failure so to serve a demand constitutes a waiver of the right.24 However, a waiver is not to be implied from a request for a directed verdict.25


Footnotes

1 2 M. Farrand, Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, at 587 (rev. ed. 1937).
2 Id. at 628.
3 J. Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States 1757 (1833). “[I]t is a most important and valuable amendment; and places upon the high ground of constitutional right the inestimable privilege of a trial by jury in civil cases, a privilege scarcely inferior to that in criminal cases, which is conceded by all to be essential to political and civil liberty.” Id. at 1762.
4 J. Elliott, The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution 326 (2d ed. 1836) (New Hampshire); 2 id. at 399–414 (New York); 3 id. at 658 (Virginia).
5 1 Annals of Congress 436 (1789). “In suits at common law, between man and man, the trial by jury, as one of the best securities to the rights of the people, ought to remain inviolate.”
6 It is simply noted in 1 Annals of Congress 760 (1789), that on August 18 the House “considered and adopted” the committee version: “In suits at common law, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved.” On September 7, the Senate Journal states that this provision was adopted after insertion of “where the consideration exceeds twenty dollars.” 2 B. Schwartz, The Bill of Rights: A Documentary History 1150 (1971).
7 Baltimore & Carolina Line v. Redman, 295 U.S. 654, 657 (1913) ; Parsons v. Bedford, 28 U.S. (3 Pet.) 433, 446–48 (1830).
8 Capital Traction Co. v. Hof, 174 U.S. 1, 13 (1899) .
9 Maxwell v. Dow, 176 U.S. 581 (1900) ; American Publishing Co. v. Fisher, 166 U.S. 464 (1897) ; Springville v. Thomas, 166 U.S. 707 (1897) .
10 413 U.S. 149 (1973) . Justices Marshall and Stewart dissented on constitutional and statutory grounds, id. at 166, while Justices Douglas and Powell relied only on statutory grounds without reaching the constitutional issue. Id. at 165, 188.
11 Id. at 155–56. The Court did not consider what number less than six, if any, would fail to satisfy the Amendment’s requirements. “What is required for a ‘jury’ is a number large enough to facilitate group deliberation combined with a likelihood of obtaining a representative cross section of the community. . . . It is undoubtedly true that at some point the number becomes too small to accomplish these goals . . .” Id. at 160 n.16. Application of similar reasoning has led the Court to uphold elimination of the unanimity as well as the 12– person requirement for criminal trials. See Williams v. Florida, 399 U.S. 78 (1970) (jury size); Apodaca v. Oregon, 406 U.S. 404 (1972) (unanimity); and discussion supra pp.1408–10.
12 Baltimore & Carolina Line v. Redman, 295 U.S. 654, 657 (1935) ; Walker v. New Mexico & So. Pac. R.R., 165 U.S. 593, 596 (1897) ; Gasoline Products Co. v. Champlin Ref. Co., 283 U.S. 494, 497–99 (1931) ; Dimick v. Schiedt, 293 U.S. 474, 476, 485–86 (1935) .
13 Gasoline Products Co. v. Champlin Ref. Co., 283 U.S. 494, 498 (1931) ; Ex parte Peterson, 253 U.S. 300, 309 (1920) .
14 Parsons v. Bedford, 28 U.S. (3 Pet.) 433, 446–47 (1830); Slocum v. New York Life Ins. Co., 228 U.S. 364, 377–78 (1913) ; Baltimore & Carolina Line v. Redman, 295 U.S. 654, 657 (1935) ; Dimick v. Schiedt, 293 U.S. 474, 476 (1935) . But see Ross v. Bernhard, 396 U.S. 531 (1970) , which may foreshadow a new analysis.
15 Luria v. United States, 231 U.S. 9, 27–28 (1913) .
16 Pearson v. Yewdall, 95 U.S. 294, 296 (1877) ; Edwards v. Elliott, 88 U.S. (21 Wall.) 532, 557 (1874); The Justices v. Murray, 76 U.S. (9 Wall.) 274, 277 (1870); Walker v. Sauvinet, 92 U.S. 90 (1876) ; St. Louis & K.C. Land Co. v. Kansas City, 241 U.S. 419 (1916) .
17 Webster v. Reid, 52 U.S. (11 How.) 437, 460 (1851); Kennon v. Gilmer, 131 U.S. 22, 28 (1889) .
18 Capital Traction Co. v. Hof, 174 U.S. 1, 5 (1899) .
19 Minneapolis & St. Louis R.R. v. Bombolis, 241 U.S. 211 (1916) . See also Melancon v. McKeithen, 345 F. Supp. 105 (E.D.La.) (three–judge court), aff’d. per curiam, 409 U.S. 943 (1972) ; Alexander v. Virginia, 413 U.S. 836 (1973) .
20 Dice v. Akron, C. & Y. R.R., 342 U.S. 359 (1952) . Four dissenters contended that the ruling was contrary to the unanimous decision in Bombolis.
21 Byrd v. Blue Ridge Rural Elec. Coop., 356 U.S. 525 (1958) (citing Herron v. Southern Pacific Co., 283 U.S. 91 (1931) ).
22 Henderson’s Distilled Spirits, 81 U.S. (14 Wall.) 44, 53 (1872); Rogers v. United States, 141 U.S. 548, 554 (1891) ; Parsons v. Armor, 28 U.S. (3 Pet.) 413 (1830); Campbell v. Boyreau, 62 U.S. (21 How.) 223 (1859).
23 Baylis v. Travellers’ Ins. Co., 113 U.S. 316, 321 (1885) . The provision did not preclude other kinds of waivers, Duignan v. United States, 274 U.S. 195, 198 (1927) , though every reasonable presumption was indulged against a waiver. Hodges v. Easton, 106 U.S. 408, 412 (1883) .
24 Fed. R. Civ. P. 38.
25 Aetna Life Ins. Co. v. Kennedy, 301 U.S. 389 (1937) ; Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(a).
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