Let’s Talk About the Seventh Amendment.
Amid all of the noise we hear during the political season, there is always a clamor about the Constitution and certain of the amendments making up the Bill of Rights. There are arguments from many sides regarding the Second Amendment and guns, for example. We hear loud assertions about who is a “true constitutionalist” and who really believes in the “limited government” implicit in the Tenth Amendment.
Some of these discussions reflect serious controversies concerning fundamental issues like the right to privacy under the Fourth Amendment. Other arguments tend toward absurdity, like one large corporation’s claim that the First Amendment would protect its ability to hide documents showing its knowledge of climate change.
But one key amendment in the Bill of Rights never gets the same attention, despite its central importance.
The Seventh Amendment concerns civil lawsuits in perfectly clear language:
In suits at common law…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.
Despite the absolute nature of the guarantee, mandating that it shall be preserved, and that no fact determined by a jury shall be reexamined, courts have allowed a steady progression of inroads infringing the right, often to the advantage of special interests, disguised as “tort reform.” Today, for example, federal and state judicial rules governing discovery and the admissibility of scientific evidence severely limit the ability of citizens harmed by corporate or governmental wrongdoing to obtain justice from a jury of their peers. Often the application of these rules make the search for reasonable compensation too expensive, complex and lengthy for an injured plaintiff.
The right to trial by jury is no trivial matter. The Founders recognized that it was a necessary check against the arbitrary exercise of power by the government and the ability of the economically powerful to harm others. Civil plaintiffs and their attorneys must, of course, continue to work within the rules as they have been developed. As citizens, however, we should continuously remind our legislators and judges of their need to recognize and reinforce, not weaken, citizens’ Seventh Amendment rights. The reason is set out in the very first Rule of Federal Civil Procedure, which demands that all the rules have as their purpose “the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action and proceeding.”
That’s Rule One; the Seventh Amendment is the mechanism for enforcing it.