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Seventh Amendment

SEVENTH AMENDMENT

The Seventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads:

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 reexamined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

The Seventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to a jury trial in most civil suits that are heard in federal court. However, before the Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial attaches, a lawsuit must satisfy four threshold requirements. First, it must assert a claim that would have triggered the right to a jury trial under the English common law of 1791, when the Seventh Amendment was ratified. If a lawsuit asserts a claim that is sufficiently analogous to an eighteenth-century English common-law claim, a litigant may still invoke the Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial even though the claim was not expressly recognized in 1791 (Markman v. Westview Instruments, 517 U.S.370, 116 S. Ct. 1384, 134 L. Ed. 2d 577 [1996]). Claims brought under a federal statute that confer a right to trial by jury also implicate the Seventh Amendment (Chauffeurs, Teamsters and Helpers, Local No. 391 v. Terry, 494 U.S. 558, 110 S. Ct. 1339, 108 L. Ed. 2d 519 [1990]).

Second, a lawsuit must be brought in federal court before a litigant may invoke the Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial. This right is one of the few liberties enumerated in the bill of rights that has not been made applicable to the states through the doctrine of selective incorporation (Minneapolis & St. Louis Railroad v. Bombolis, 241 U.S. 211, 36 S. Ct. 595, 60 L. Ed. 961 [1916]). The Seventh Amendment does not apply in state court even when a litigant is enforcing a right created by federal law. However, most state constitutions similarly afford the right to trial by jury in civil cases.

Third, a lawsuit must assert a claim for more than $20. Because nearly all lawsuits are filed to recover much larger sums, this provision of the Seventh Amendment is virtually always met.

Fourth, a lawsuit must assert a claim that is essentially legal in nature before the Seventh Amendment applies. There is no right to a jury trial in civil actions involving claims that are essentially equitable in nature (Tull v. United States, 481 U.S. 412, 107 S. Ct. 1831, 95 L. Ed. 2d 365 [1987]). Lawsuits that seek injunctions, specific performance, and other types of nonmonetary remedies are traditionally treated as equitable claims. Lawsuits that seek money damages, conversely, are traditionally treated as legal claims. However, these traditional categories of law and equity are not always neatly separated.

If the monetary relief sought is only "incidental" to an equitable claim for an injunction, the right to a jury trial will be denied (Stewart v. KHD Deutz of America, 75 F.3d 1522 [11th Cir. 1996]). Even if a lawsuit is couched in terms of a legal claim for monetary relief, a court will deny a litigant's request for a jury trial if an essentially equitable claim is being asserted. Lawsuits seeking restitution, though representing claims for monetary reimbursement, have been treated as equitable claims for the purposes of the Seventh Amendment (Provident Life and Accident Insurance v. Williams, 858 F. Supp. 907 [W.D. Ark. 1994]). On the other hand, an employee's action for back pay under Title VII of the civil rights act of 1964 (42 U.S.C.A. §§ 2000e et seq.) represents a legal claim despite the fact that the statute characterizes the remedy as equitable (Local No. 391 v. Terry).

When a lawsuit involves mixed questions of law and equity, litigants may present the legal questions to a jury under the Seventh Amendment, while leaving the equitable questions for judicial resolution (Snider v. Consolidation Coal Co., 973 F.2d 555 [7th Cir. 1992]). For example, an action to recover attorneys' fees pursuant to a written agreement normally would be decided by a jury in accordance with the common law of contracts. However, in a subsequent proceeding to determine the amount of attorneys' fees owed, equitable principles of accounting would normally be applied by a judge alone (McGuire v. Russell Miller, Inc., 1 F.3d 1306 [2nd Cir. 1993]). Any factual determinations made by the jury in the first proceeding would be binding on the judge during the second proceeding (Lebow v. American Trans Air, 86 F.3d 661 [7th Cir. 1996]).

Some types of lawsuits present issues that are neither wholly legal nor entirely equitable. In many such cases, the Seventh Amendment offers no protection. For example, there is no right to trial by jury for lawsuits that involve issues of maritime law or admiralty rights (Parsons v. Bedford, 28 U.S. [3 Pet.] 433, 7 L. Ed. 732 [1830]). Nor is the Seventh Amendment implicated in proceedings that relate to the naturalization (Luria v. United States, 231 U.S. 9, 34 S. Ct. 10, 58 L. Ed. 101 [1913]) or deportation (Gee Wah Lee v. United States, 25 F.2d 107 [5th Cir. 1928]), of aliens. Litigants also have no Seventh Amendment right to trial by jury in lawsuits brought against the federal government (Lehman v. Nakshian, 453 U.S. 156, 101 S. Ct. 2698, 69 L. Ed. 2d 548 [1981]).

The underlying rationale of the Seventh Amendment was to preserve the historic line separating the province of the jury from that of the judge in civil cases. Although the line separating questions of law from questions of fact is often blurred, the basic functions of judges and juries are clear. Judges are charged with the responsibility of resolving issues concerning the admissibility of evidence and instructing jurors regarding the pertinent laws governing the case. Judges are also permitted to comment on the evidence, highlight important issues, and otherwise express their opinions in open court as long as each factual question is ultimately submitted to the jury. However, a judge may not interject her personal opinions or observations to such an extent that they impair a litigant's right to a fair trial (Rivas v. Brattesani, 94 F.3d 802 [2nd Cir. 1996]).

Juries perform three main functions. First, jurors are charged with the responsibility of listening to the evidence, ascertaining the relevant facts, and drawing reasonable inferences that are necessary to reach a verdict. Second, jurors are required to heed the instructions read by the court and apply the governing legal principles to the facts of the case. Third, jurors are obliged to determine the legal consequences of the litigants' behavior through the process of group deliberation and then publicly announce their verdict.

The Seventh Amendment expressly forbids federal judges to "re-examin[e]" any "fact tried by a jury" except as allowed by the common law. This provision has been interpreted to mean that no court, trial or appellate, may overturn a jury verdict that is reasonably supported by the evidence (Taylor v. Curry, 17 F.3d 1434 [4th Cir. 1994]). A jury must be allowed to hear a lawsuit from start to finish unless it presents a legal claim that is completely lacking an evidentiary basis (Gregory v. Missouri Pacific Railroad, 32 F.3d 160 [5th Cir. 1994]).

Together with the due process clause of the fifth amendment, the Seventh Amendment guarantees civil litigants the right to an impartial jury (McCoy v. Goldston, 652 F.2d 654 [6th Cir. 1981]). A juror's impartiality may be compromised by communications with sources outside the courtroom, such as friends, relatives, and members of the media. The presence of even one partial, biased, or prejudiced juror creates a presumption that the Seventh Amendment has been violated (Haley v. Blue Ridge Transfer Co., 802 F.2d 1532 [4th Cir. 1986]). A litigant seeking to overcome this presumption bears a heavy burden to establish the harmlessness of an unauthorized jury communication. In Haley, for example, the Supreme Court overturned a verdict against the defendant because jurors had communicated with an outside source who attempted to persuade them to side with the plaintiff.

Although every juror must be impartial, there is no Seventh Amendment right to a jury of 12 persons. In Colgrove v. Battin, 413 U.S. 149, 93 S. Ct. 2448, 37 L. Ed. 2d 522 (1973), the Supreme Court ruled that the quality of the deliberation process is not impaired when the size of a jury is reduced from 12 to six members. The Court cited one study suggesting that smaller juries promote more robust deliberations. Regardless of a jury's size, the Seventh Amendment requires unanimity among jurors who hear civil cases in federal court (Murray v. Laborers Union Local No. 324, 55 F.3d 1445 [9th Cir. 1995]). By contrast, the sixth amendment to the Constitution does not require juror unanimity in criminal trials, except in death penalty cases.

further readings

Corwin, Edwin S. 1978. The Constitution and What It Means Today. 14th rev. ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press.

Dwyer, William L. 2002. In the Hands of the People: The Trial Jury's Origins, Triumphs, Troubles, and Future in American Democracy. New York: Thomas Dunne Books.

Kane, Mary Kay. 2003. Civil Procedure in a Nutshell. 5th ed. St. Paul, Minn.: Thomson/West.

Levy, Leonard Williams. 1999. The Palladium of Justice: Origins of Trial by Jury. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee.

cross-references

Incorporation Doctrine.

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