• A primer on the 7th Amendment Thursday, September 17, 2009

    By Anna Buck

    The Constitution protects citizens from the powerful.  The right to a jury trial in the criminal and civil court systems is fundamental to that protection.

    Not long before the Revolutionary War, John Adams, the Boston lawyer who would become the nation’s second president, wrote, “Representative government and trial by jury are the heart and lungs of liberty. Without them we have no other fortification against being ridden like horses, fleeced like sheep, worked like cattle and fed and clothed like swine and hounds.”

    John Adams was not alone in his belief.

    Thomas Jefferson, then a Virginia lawyer who would succeed Adams as president, wrote to Thomas Paine in 1789, “I consider trial by jury as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.”

    James Madison, the father of the Constitution and the nation’s fourth president, anchored the Bill of Rights around the Sixth and Seventh Amendments, which give citizens the right to a jury trial in criminal cases and in civil cases.

    The Seventh Amendment says: “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.”

    By ensuring the right to a jury, the nation’s founders sought to protect the individual from the hold that the wealthy and privileged have on society.

    In his 1833 treatise on the Constitution, Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story called the Seventh Amendment “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.”

    Pennsylvanian Anti-Federalist author, and later judge,  Samuel Bryan argued in the Letters of Centinel in 1787 that judges are predisposed toward “a bias towards those of their own rank and dignity; for it is not to be expected, that the few should be attentive to the rights of the many.

    “This [the civil jury trial] therefore preserves in the hands of the people, that share which they ought to have in the administration of justice, and prevents the encroachments of the more powerful and wealthy citizens.”

    More recently, in a 1975 Supreme Court case striking down a state law excluding women from jury service, Justice Byron White wrote: “The purpose of a jury is to guard against the exercise of arbitrary power–to make available the common sense judgment of the community . . . in preference to the professional or perhaps over-conditioned or biased response of a judge.”  Taylor v. Louisianna, 419 U.S. 522, 530 (1975).

    The jury system ensures that parties standing trial are granted a fair hearing. Jurors are chosen from a random pool of citizens, and are solely accountable to the consciences. Jury duty is part of the defense envisioned by the founders against tyranny.

    Alexis de Tocqueville put it in these words: “[Jury service] rubs off that private selfishness which is the rust of society.”

    For more information, please see Charles W. Wolfram, The Constitutional History of the Seventh Amendment, 57 Minn. L. Rev. 639, 695-96 (1973).

    (Buck is a student at McGeorge School of Law.)

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