Seventh Amendment Civil Trial Rights

Many people know that when someone is charged with a crime in the United States they have the right to a jury trial, among other constitutional rights. But the Constitution, via the Seventh Amendment, also provides protection for civil suits - legal disputes between citizens or entities.

What 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."

What It Means

United States Library of Congress, The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation

On September 12, 1787, as the Constitutional 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 of the proposed amendment or its meaning was debated during its passage.6

When Is a Jury Required in Civil Trials?

The coverage of the Seventh Amendment is "limited to rights and remedies peculiarly legal in their nature, and such as it was proper to assert in courts of law and by the appropriate modes and proceedings of courts of law."7 The term "common law" was used in contradistinction to suits in which equitable rights alone were recognized at the time of the framing of the Amendment and equitable remedies were administered.8

Illustrative of the Court's course of decisions on this subject are two unanimous decisions holding that civil juries were required, one in a suit by a landlord to recover possession of real property from a tenant allegedly behind on rent, the other in a suit for damages for alleged racial discrimination in the rental of housing in violation of federal law. In the former case, the Court reasoned that its Seventh Amendment precedents "require[d] trial by jury in actions unheard of at common law, provided that the action involves rights and remedies of the sort traditionally enforced in an action at law, rather than in an action at equity or admiralty."9 The statutory cause of action, the Court found, had several counterparts in the common law, all of which involved a right to trial by jury. In the latter case, the plaintiff had argued that the Amendment was inapplicable to new causes of action created by congressional action, but the Court disagreed. "The Seventh Amendment does apply to actions enforcing statutory rights, and requires a jury trial upon demand, if the statute creates legal rights and remedies, enforceable in an action for damages in the ordinary courts of law."10

Omission of provision for a jury has been upheld in a number of other cases on the ground that the suit in question was not a suit at common law within the meaning of the Amendment, or that the issues raised were not peculiarly legal in their nature.11 Where there is no direct historical antecedent dating to the adoption of the amendment, the court may also consider whether existing precedent and the sound administration of justice favor resolution by judges or juries.12

The amendment does not apply to cases in admiralty and maritime jurisdiction, in which the trial is by a court without a jury,13 nor does it reach statutory proceedings unknown to the common law, such as an application to a court of equity to enforce an order of an administrative body.14 Thus, when Congress committed to administrative determination the finding of a violation of the Occupational Safety and Health Act with the discretion to fix a fine for a violation, the charged party being able to obtain judicial review of the administrative proceeding in a federal court of appeal and the fine being collectible in a suit in federal court, the argument that the absence of a jury trial in the process for a charged party violated the Seventh Amendment was unanimously rejected. "At least in cases in which 'public rights' are being litigated—e.g., cases in which the government sues in its sovereign capacity to enforce public rights created by statutes within the power of Congress to enact—the Seventh Amendment does not prohibit Congress from assigning the factfinding function and initial adjudication to an administrative forum with which the jury would be incompatible."15

On the other hand, if Congress assigns such cases to Article III courts, a jury may be required. In Tull v. United States,16 the Court ruled that the Amendment requires trial by jury in civil actions to determine liability for civil penalties under the Clean Water Act, but not to assess the amount of penalty. The penal nature of the Clean Water Act's civil penalty remedy distinguishes it from restitution-based remedies available in equity courts, and therefore makes it a remedy of the type that could be imposed only by courts of law.17 However, a jury need not invariably determine the remedy in a trial in which it must determine liability. Because the Court viewed assessment of the amount of penalty as involving neither the substance nor a fundamental element of a common-law right to trial by jury, it held permissible the Act's assignment of that task to the trial judge.

Later, the Court relied on a broadened concept of "public rights" to define the limits of congressional power to assign causes of action to tribunals in which jury trials are unavailable. In Granfinanciera, S.A. v. Nordberg,18 the Court declared that Congress "lacks the power to strip parties contesting matters of private right of their constitutional right to a trial by jury." The Seventh Amendment test, the Court indicated, is the same as the Article III test for whether Congress may assign adjudication of a claim to a non-Article III tribunal.19 As a general matter, public rights involve 'the relationship between the government and persons subject to its authority,' whereas private rights relate to 'the liability of one individual to another.'20 Although finding room for some debate, the Court determined that a bankruptcy trustee's right to recover for a fraudulent conveyance is more accurately characterized as a private rather than a public right, at least when the defendant had not submitted a claim against the bankruptcy estate.21

What Does a Jury Do in a Civil Case?

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."22 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."23 Decision of the jury must be by unanimous verdict.24 In Colgrove v. Battin,25 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.26

The primary purpose of the Amendment is to preserve 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 instructions by the court.27 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.28 Those matters that were tried by a jury in England in 1791 are to be so tried today and those matters, such as matters that fall under equity, and admiralty and maritime jurisprudence, that were tried by the judge in England in 1791 are to be so tried today,29 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.30

Footnotes

  1. 2 Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, at 587 (Max Farrand ed., 1937).
  2. Id. at 628.
  3. Joseph 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 Cong. 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 Cong. 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. Shields v. Thomas, 59 U.S. (18 How.) 253, 262 (1856).
  8. Parsons v. Bedford, 28 U.S. (3 Pet.) 433, 447 (1830)Barton v. Barbour, 104 U.S. 126, 133 (1881). Formerly, it did not apply to cases where recovery of money damages was incidental to equitable relief even though damages might have been recovered in an action at law. Clark v. Wooster, 119 U.S. 322, 325 (1886)Pease v. Rathbun-Jones Eng. Co., 243 U.S. 273, 279 (1917)But see Dairy Queen v. Wood, 369 U.S. 469 (1962) (legal claims must be tried before equitable ones).
  9. Pernell v. Southall Realty Co., 416 U.S. 363 (1974).
  10. Curtis v. Loether, 415 U.S. 189, 194 (1974). A damage action under the statute sounds basically in tort—the statute merely defines a new legal duty and authorizes the court to compensate a plaintiff for the injury caused by the defendants' wrongful breach. . . . [T]his cause of action is analogous to a number of tort actions recognized at common law. Id. at 195. See also Chauffeurs, Teamsters and Helpers Local 391 v. Terry, 494 U.S. 558 (1990) (suit against union for back pay for breach of duty of fair representation is a suit for compensatory damages, hence plaintiff is entitled to a jury trial); Wooddell v. International Bhd. of Electrical Workers Local 71, 502 U.S. 93 (1991) (similar suit against union for money damages entitles union member to jury trial; a claim for injunctive relief was incidental to the damages claim); Feltner v. Columbia Pictures Television, 523 U.S. 340 (1998) (jury trial required for copyright action with close analogue at common law, even though the relief sought is not actual damages but statutory damages based on what is just).
  11. Among such actions or issues were, e.g., (1) enforcement of claims against the United States, McElrath v. United States, 102 U.S. 426, 440 (1880)see also Galloway v. United States, 319 U.S. 372, 388 (1943); (2) suit under a territorial statute authorizing a special nonjury tribunal to hear claims against a municipality having no legal obligation but based on moral obligation only, Guthrie Nat'l Bank v. Guthrie, 173 U.S. 528, 534 (1899)see also United States v. Realty Co., 163 U.S. 427, 439 (1896)New Orleans v. Clark, 95 U.S. 644, 653 (1877); (3) cancellation of a naturalization certificate for fraud, Luria v. United States, 231 U.S. 9, 27 (1913); (4) reversal of an order to deport an alien, Gee Wah Lee v. United States, 25 F.2d 107 (5th Cir. 1928)cert. denied, 277 U.S. 608 (1928); (5) damages for patent infringement, Filer & Stowell Co. v. Diamond Iron Works, 270 F. 489 (2d Cir. 1921)cert. denied, 256 U.S. 691 (1921); (6) reversal of an award under the Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act, Crowell v. Benson, 285 U.S. 22, 45 (1932); (7) reversal of a decision of customs appraisers on the value of imports, Auffmordt v. Hedden, 137 U.S. 310, 329 (1890); (8) a summary disposition by referee in bankruptcy of issues regarding voidable preferences as asserted and proved by the trustee, Katchen v. Landy, 382 U.S. 323 (1966); and (9) a determination by a judge in calculating just compensation in a federal eminent domain proceeding of the issue as to whether the condemned lands were originally within the scope of the government's project or were adjacent lands later added to the plan, United States v. Reynolds, 397 U.S. 14 (1970).
  12. Cooper v. Oklahoma, 517 U.S. 348 (1996) (interpretation and construction of terms underlying patent claims may be reserved entirely for the court).
  13. Parsons v. Bedford, 28 U.S. (3 Pet.) 433 (1830)Waring v. Clarke, 46 U.S. (5 How.) 441, 460 (1847)Romero v. International Terminal Operating Co., 358 U.S. 354 (1959)But see Fitzgerald v. United States Lines Co., 374 U.S. 16 (1963).
  14. NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp., 301 U.S. 1, 48 (1937)See also ICC v. Brimson, 154 U.S. 447, 488 (1894)Yakus v. United States, 321 U.S. 414, 447 (1944).
  15. Atlas Roofing Co. v. OSHRC, 430 U.S. 442, 450 (1977).
  16. 481 U.S. 412 (1987).
  17. The statute itself specified only a maximum amount for the penalty; the Court derived its punitive characterization from indications in the legislative history that Congress desired consideration of the need for retribution and deterrence as well as the need for restitution.
  18. 492 U.S. 33, 51–52 (1989).
  19. [I]f a statutory cause of action . . . is not a 'public right' for Article III purposes, then Congress may not assign its adjudication to a specialized non-Article III court lacking 'the essential attributes of the judicial power.' And if the action must be tried under the auspices of an Article III court, then the Seventh Amendment affords the parties the right to a jury trial whenever the cause of action is legal in nature. Conversely, if Congress may assign the adjudication of a statutory cause of action to a non-Article III tribunal, then the Seventh Amendment poses no independent bar to the adjudication of that action by a nonjury factfinder. 492 U.S. at 53–54 (citation omitted). See also Oil States Energy Servs., LLC v. Greene's Energy Grp., LLC, 138 S. Ct. 1365, 1379 (2018) (This Court's precedents establish that, when Congress properly assigns a matter to adjudication in a non-Article III tribunal, 'the Seventh Amendment poses no independent bar to the adjudication of that action by a nonjury factfinder.' (quoting Granfinanciera, 492 U.S. at 53–54)).
  20. 492 U.S. at 51 n.8 (quoting Crowell v. Benson, 285 U.S. 22, 50, 51 (1932)). The Court qualified certain statements in Atlas Roofing and in the process refined its definition of public rights. There are some public rights cases, the Court explained, in which the Federal Government is not a party in its sovereign capacity, but which involve statutory rights that are integral parts of a public regulatory scheme. It is in cases of this nature that Congress may dispense with juries as factfinders through its choice of an adjudicative forum. This does not mean, however, that Congress may assign at least the initial factfinding in all cases involving controversies entirely between private parties to administrative tribunals or other tribunals not involving juries, so long as they are established as adjuncts to Article III courts. 492 U.S. at 55 n.10 (emphasis added).
  21. 492 U.S. at 55. On the other hand, a creditor who submits a claim against the bankruptcy estate subjects himself to the bankruptcy court's equitable power, and is not entitled to a jury trial when subsequently sued by the bankruptcy trustee to recover preferential monetary transfers. Langenkamp v. Culp, 498 U.S. 42 (1990).
  22. Baltimore & Carolina Line v. Redman, 295 U.S. 654, 657 (1935)Parsons v. Bedford, 28 U.S. (3 Pet.) 433, 446–48 (1830).
  23. Capital Traction Co. v. Hof, 174 U.S. 1, 13 (1899).
  24. 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).
  25. 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.
  26. 413 U.S. 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 the 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) (plurality opinion) (unanimity); and Sixth Amendment discussion, supra, The Attributes of the Jury.
  27. 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).
  28. Gasoline Products Co. v. Champlin Ref. Co., 283 U.S. 494, 498 (1931)In re Peterson, 253 U.S. 300, 309 (1920).
  29. 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 (1935)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.
  30. Luria v. United States, 231 U.S. 9, 27–28 (1913).
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