The Right to a Trial by Jury- so important, some refused to sign the Constitution over its omission
In jury selection, without fail, I mention the 7th Amendment and thank the panel of potential jurors for coming to court and fulfilling their duty, their privilege, and their rights as an American citizen. It states:
In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved….
I then go on to make a joke that we will be suing for more than $20 and, in fact, more than $15,000 by being in circuit court, but that that amount- whether $1 or $10 million is up to them- is sacred and precious. And I mean every word.
The 7th Amendment allows me to do what I do- try cases before a jury of my client’s peers- regular people. It was originally left out of the Constitution- intentionally. Toward the end of the Constitutional Convention, the original of all “Draft Parties,” Hugh Williamson of North Carolina noted that no provision had yet been made for juries in civil cases and suggested the necessity of it. Some thought it should be left up to Congress, others thought it shouldn’t be included at all. A few days later, some moved to insert, “And a trial by jury shall be preserved as usual in civil cases.” Despite being an innocuous one liner, it was voted down- unanimously.
So there it was- no guaranteed jury system in civil cases in America. It was a very big deal. People think about the phrase “no taxation without representation,” but the tyrannical rule in criminal and civil cases was just as important and fundamental to the foundation of the United States of America. Let me rewind some. The story actually starts in (what wasn’t a so Jolly) Old England.
The trial by jury existed in ancient Greece. The right to a civil jury was later proclaimed of ultimate importance in the Magna Carta in 1215. When Massachusetts enacted its colonial charter in 1641, it expressly guaranteed the right to juries in criminal and civil trials despite making no mention of the right to free speech. This right was stripped from the American colonies,as American colonial judges served pleasure of the King. King George III abolished trial by jury in the Colonies to ensure his power and to restrict autonomy of the colonists.
In 1777, Edmund Burke, an Irishman and member of the British Parliament, wrote A Letter to John Farr and John Harris, Esqrs., Sheriffs of the City of Bristol, on the Affairs of America. In this letter, he pointed out the unfairness of recent laws passed pertaining to Britain’s “rebellious colony” of America. Burke critiqued the laws because they imposed “a much deeper malignity” and carried “into execution, purposes which appear to me so contradictory to all the principles, not only of the constitutional policy of Great Britain, but even of that species of hostile justice which no asperity of war wholly extinguishes in the minds of a civilized people.” He called his own government a hypocrite. These new laws stripped rights from the colonists, who later became independent, by taking away their justice and this sacred thing known as the trial by jury of one’s peers. The alternative system allowed trial by biased judges, or worse, transportation to trial in another place entirely by those who had disdain for you even being there.
Burke’s rebuke was heard a year later in the Declaration of Independence. We all know how that begins, “When in the course of human events . . .” and “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” but many are not as familiar with the complaints it made thereafter against those unfair and tyrannical laws the king placed on our American forefathers. Those injuries included “depriving us, in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury” and “transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences (old English spelling),” to which Burke objected. Pretended Offenses? Transportation beyond the Seas? Burke was certainly critical of the system mandated upon us.
It was far of more significance than anything posted on Twitter, Facebook or even in a letter to the editor today. There it was, the basis of our civil justice system, left out of the Constitution, the very foundation of our Nation’s principles. Some even refused to sign the Constitution, based on the absence of the guarantee of a trial by one’s peers. Alexander Hamilton wrote about it in The Federalist No. 83, stating it was no big deal, as just because it was not mentioned did not mean it was abolished, but others argued that the provision in the Constitution for juries in criminal cases necessarily implied their abolition in civil cases.
The Seventh Amendment, passed by the First Congress without debate, cured the omission by declaring that the right to a jury trial shall be preserved in common-law cases, thus leaving the traditional distinction between cases at law and those in equity or admiralty, where there normally was no jury. The courts have gone on to further define the issues and the monetary amounts have been raised, but it finally happened. People take it for granted, but it was a big deal then and is just as a big deal now.
If you need a lawyer, if you need something resolved by a jury, give us a call- the Law Office of John Phillips- 800-656-6952.