• Exploring American History

7th Amendment provides for jury trials in civil cases

With the advent of television commercials filled with personal injury lawyers, there are those who seem to believe jury trials for civil cases are a common occurrence. In reality, however, that is not the case. Though the 7th Amendment offers individuals the right to resolve a civil dispute with a jury trial, less than 1% of civil cases are decided in this manner.

In order for a civil case to be won, the plaintiff is required to prove the case with a “preponderance of evidence” (a lower standard of proof than required by a criminal court, which must be beyond a reasonable doubt). The burden of proof is met when the party with the burden convinces the fact-finder there is a greater than 50% chance the claim is true.

The framers added the 7th Amendment to ensure the right to a trial during a civil case. They did so in order to protect this right from randomly being removed by the government. The concern the framers had was if judges alone decided trials, they felt the judge might lean more in favor of the government, thereby assigning the government too much power. This situation had been very prominent during colonial times when judges were appointed by the king and these judges most often ruled in the king’s favor. By having a jury composed of local residents, the framers believed the rulings would most likely be correct.

Keep in mind, the United States’ legal system is composed of two parts – federal and state. In order for a civil case to be heard by a jury, the 7th Amendment requires the case be heard in a federal courtroom. Though the Supreme Court requires states to protect most every right in the Bill of Rights for their citizens, civil jury trials have been the exception. Most state constitutions, however, do include rights to a civil jury trial in several situations.

When the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in 1787, attitudes towards civil juries had begun to change. Many civil trials had ruled in favor of debtors; consequently, there was concern by the Federalists that contracts might begin to be overturned. Consequently, text regarding civil trials was omitted.

As the state conventions took place for ratification of the Constitution, Anti-Federalists highly opposed the fact the text regarding civil juries had been excluded. In order to avoid holding an additional constitutional convention, James Madison quickly penned the text which soon became the 7th Amendment.

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.

Thomas Jefferson

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