Beacon Theatres, Inc. v. Westover 359 U.S. 500 (1964)

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Fox West Coast Theatres, Inc., contending that it was being harassed and that its business was being impeded by the threats of a competitor, Beacon Theatres, Inc., to bring an antitrust suit, brought an action for declaratory judgment in the U.S. District Court. Beacon, in a countersuit, alleged conspiracy in restraint of trade, and asked treble damages under the sherman antitrust act.

Judge Westover, exercising his discretion under the Declaratory Judgment Act and the federal rules of civil procedure, decided to hear first the declaratory judgment suit, which, as an action in equity did not require a jury. Only if that suit were decided in favor of Beacon would the antitrust suit be tried.

The Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice hugo l. black, held (5–3) that Westover's decision deprived Beacon of its right to trial by jury in a civil case. Because trial by jury is a constitutional right, judicial discretion must be used to preserve it unless there is a showing that irreparable harm would result from the delay. "Only under the most imperative circumstances," Black wrote, "… can the right to a jury trial of legal issues be lost through prior determination of equitable claims."

Dennis J. Mahoney