What it says:
“In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right to trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury shall be reexamined in any Court of the United States, then according to the rules of the common law.” (1).
What it means:
Broadly speaking, the Seventh Amendment reaffirms the right to trial by jury (this time in legal civil cases) and ensures that no court can overturn factual determinations made by a jury. (Note: The right to a jury trial in civil cases usually applies only to Federal Courts). (2).
Where it came from:
Preservation Clause: Although the concept of jury trial was deeply embedded in English Law, the debate about a civil jury was revolutionized by the Framers. As the Convention was reaching its final stages, Mr. Williamson of North Carolina noted that there was “no provision [was] yet made for juries in Civil cases and suggested the necessity of it.” (3). The observation garnered support and it was moved that the protection is inserted in Article III, § 2. (4). Eventually, the protection was incorporated into the Seventh Amendment but has been undergoing development. Although the clause was applied as it “existed under the English common law” (5), it was amended in 1973 by the Supreme Court to allow for a 6 person jury instead of the original 12 under English law. (6).
Reexamination Clause: Although civil juries similar to those in the United States are a unique part of American legal history, it is still based on an old English institution. Even in the middle ages, the English used juries of laymen to decide certain civil cases. Fast forward in time to the eighteenth century. As the desire for independence from Britain grew, the jury in America became more important. The British government claimed that Americans had to obey laws enacted by the British Parliament. Because Americans participated on colonial juries, these juries became a way for Americans to govern themselves. (7). At the time of the federal Constitutional Convention in 1787, Anti-Federalists strongly protested the lack of a right to civil jury trial. They argued that juries could protect litigants from bad laws passed by the legislature, negative actions by the executive, and corruption in the judicial system. Because he did not want another constitutional convention to be called, James Madison conceded to the Anti-Federalists and added the Seventh Amendment. (8).
Why it’s important today:
Because jury trials always protect against corruption from all branches of government, preservation of that right is fundamentally vital. Even in civil cases, if we just surrendered our (limited) right, it would still allow for abuse at the hands of the federal government. As long as American citizens are allowed to continue to protect the life, liberty, and property of other citizens, then we will be able to continue to function as a fourth check on the power of all three branches of government.
(1) U.S. Constitution, amend. 7
(2) cuo4, Incorporation Doctrine LII / Legal Information Institute (2014), https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/incorporation_doctrine (last visited Aug 9, 2017).
(3) 2 M. Farrand, Records of The Federal Convention of 1787, at 587 (rev. ed. 1937).
(4) id. at 628
(5) Baltimore & Carolina Line v. Redman, 295 U.S. 654, 657 (1913).
(6) Colgrove v. Battin, 413 U.S. 149 (1973).
(7) Valerie Hans, The Evolution of the American Jury Evolution of the Jury, http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/juryseminar/EvolutionJury.html (last visited Aug 5, 2017)
(8) Renée L Lerner, The 7th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution National Constitution Center – The 7th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, https://constitutioncenter.org/interactive-constitution/amendments/amendment-vii (last visited Aug 9, 2017).