jury trial

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Jury trials are trials that allow juries to make findings of fact and render a verdict for the trial. The judge decides questions of law, including whether particular items of evidence will be presented to the jury. The parties may, however, request a bench trial, where the judge decides issues of fact and law. The right to, composition, and procedures for jury trials differ between criminal and civil cases as a well as federal and state courts. Absent fraud, a jury verdict is final. Jury deliberations will not be scrutinized or reviewed, or their verdict overturned. This is true even when jury nullification is suspected, meaning the jury purposefully rejected the judge’s instructions or the evidence presented.

Right to Jury Trial

The United States Constitution guarantees the right to trial by jury. The Sixth Amendment gives criminal defendants the right to a public jury trial. Under Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145 (1968), the U.S. Supreme Court limited the right to a jury generally only to crimes that carry a penalty of more than six months imprisonment. The Seventh Amendment preserves the right of a jury for civil cases in federal court that involve questions of law but not questions of equity. Outside the constitutional guarantees, a jury trial may be guaranteed by statute, and judges may order a trial by jury with party consent.

In states, the Sixth Amendment has been incorporated to require state courts to provide jury trials in criminal cases but not civil cases. Most states guarantee juries for civil trials on their own. However, they may limit jury trials for cases involving a certain amount of money and may have different procedures to make civil jury trials quicker. 


In federal and state courts, a right to a trial by jury can be waived. For criminal cases, a defendant can only waive a trial by jury after being warned of the consequences of waiving such a right. If the court and prosecutors agree, the defendant can waive the right in writing. Numerous circumstances may arise where a defendant decides to waive the right in criminal cases, particularly where they fear a jury might be prejudiced on moral grounds. 

In civil cases, jury trials can be waived easily. In the federal system, a jury trial must be included in a written demand, or else, a defendant automatically waives the right to a jury trial. The vast majority of civil cases are bench trials, with one reason being that some types of civil law can be difficult to explain to a jury. 

Composition of Jury


In federal court and most state courts, a jury consists of 12 members for criminal cases. Generally, a jury verdict in federal court must be unanimous. Parties to a case may agree to stipulate that a jury can be less than 12 members. In states, a jury can be as low as six members in noncapital cases but must receive unanimous verdicts for small juries. Also, all state juries in criminal trials must have a unanimous verdict involving a serious offense. 

In civil cases, a federal court can allow juries as low six in number but requires unanimity unless the parties stipulate otherwise. In states, jury numbers can vary greatly and as to unanimity requirements. 

Choosing Jurors

Judges and the parties determine who sits on the jury prior to trial by selecting from the jury panel. In federal courts, the judge will question prospective jurors to determine if any jurors are unqualified to sit on the jury, for example, because they exhibit bias. Parties can move to exclude a juror for cause, such as the juror displays some impartiality. Parties also may exclude individual jurors prior to trial by using a peremptory challenge, which can be exercised for any reason. However, they may not exclude jurors on the basis of race, sex, or ethnicity as it violates the equal protection clause.

See also: Bench trial (contrast).

[Last updated in April of 2023 by the Wex Definitions Team]