Seventh Amendment to the United States Constitution
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The Seventh Amendment (Amendment VII) to the United States Constitution is part of the Bill of Rights. This amendment codifies the right to a jury trial in certain civil cases, and inhibits courts from overturning a jury’s findings of fact.
An early version of the Seventh Amendment was introduced in Congress in 1789 by James Madison, along with the other amendments to the Bill of Rights, in response to Anti-Federalist objections to the new Constitution. Congress proposed a revised version of the Seventh Amendment to the states on September 28, 1789, and by December 15, 1791, the necessary three-quarters of the states had ratified as it. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson announced the adoption of the amendment on March 1, 1792.
The Seventh Amendment is generally considered one of the more straightforward amendments of the Bill of Rights. Unlike most of the Bill’s provisions, the Seventh Amendment has never been incorporated (i.e. applied to the states), although almost every state voluntarily complies with such a requirement.United States v. Wonson (1812) established the “historical test”, which interpreted the amendment as relying on English common law to determine whether a jury trial was necessary in a civil suit. The amendment thus does not guarantee trial by jury in cases under maritime law, in lawsuits against the government itself, and for many parts of patent claims. In all other cases, the jury can be waived by consent of the parties.
The amendment additionally guarantees a minimum of six members for a jury in a civil trial. The amendment’s twenty dollar threshold has not been the subject of much scholarly or judicial writing; that threshold remains applicable despite the inflation that has occurred since the 18th century.
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 re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.
After several years of comparatively weak government under the Articles of Confederation, a Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia proposed a new constitution on September 17, 1787, featuring a stronger chief executive and other changes. George Mason, a Constitutional Convention delegate and the drafter of Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, proposed that a bill of rights listing and guaranteeing civil liberties be included. Other delegates—including future Bill of Rights drafter James Madison—disagreed, arguing that existing state guarantees of civil liberties were sufficient and that any attempt to enumerate individual rights risked implying that the federal government had power to violate every other right (this concern eventually led to the Ninth andTenth Amendments). After a brief debate, Mason’s proposal was defeated by a unanimous vote of the state delegations. In the final days of the convention, North Carolina delegate Hugh Williamson proposed a guarantee of trial by jury in federal civil cases, but a motion to add this guarantee was also defeated.
However, for the Constitution to be adopted, nine of the thirteen states were required to ratify it in state conventions. Opposition to ratification (“Anti-Federalism“) was partly based on the Constitution’s lack of adequate guarantees for civil liberties. Supporters of the Constitution in states where popular sentiment was against ratification (including Virginia, Massachusetts, and New York) successfully proposed that their state conventions both ratify the Constitution and call for the addition of a bill of rights.
One charge of the Anti-Federalists was that giving the U.S. Supreme Court jurisdiction “both as to law and fact” would allow it to deny the findings of jury trials in civil cases. Responding to these concerns, five state ratification conventions recommended guaranteeing the right to jury trial in civil cases by constitutional amendment.
Proposal and ratification
In the 1st United States Congress, following the state legislatures’ request, James Madison proposed twenty constitutional amendments based on state bills of rights and English sources such as the Bill of Rights 1689. Among them was an amendment protecting findings of fact in civil cases exceeding a certain dollar value from judicial review. Madison proposed that this amendment be added directly to Article Three, though Congress later determined to add the proposed Bill of Rights to the end of the Constitution, leaving the original text intact. Congress also reduced Madison’s proposed twenty amendments to twelve, and these were proposed to the states for ratification on September 25, 1789.
By the time the Bill of Rights was submitted to the states for ratification, opinions had shifted in both parties. Many Federalists, who had previously opposed a Bill of Rights, now supported the Bill as a means of silencing the Anti-Federalists’ most effective criticism. Many Anti-Federalists, in contrast, now opposed it, realizing that the Bill’s adoption would greatly lessen the chances of a second constitutional convention, which they desired. Anti-Federalists such as Richard Henry Lee also argued that the Bill left the most objectionable portions of the Constitution, such as the federal judiciary and direct taxation, intact.
On November 20, 1789, New Jersey ratified eleven of the twelve amendments, rejecting an amendment to regulate congressional pay raises. On December 19 and 22, respectively, Maryland and North Carolina ratified all twelve amendments. On January 19, 25, and 28, 1790, respectively, South Carolina, New Hampshire, and Delaware ratified the Bill, though New Hampshire rejected the amendment on Congressional pay raises, and Delaware rejected Article I, which regulated the size of the House. This brought the total of ratifying states to six of the required ten, but the process stalled in other states: Connecticut and Georgia found a Bill of Rights unnecessary and so refused to ratify, while Massachusetts ratified most of the amendments, but failed to send official notice to the Secretary of State that it had done so.[a]
In February through June of 1790, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island ratified eleven of the amendments, though all three rejected the amendment on Congressional pay raises. Virginia initially postponed its debate, but after Vermont was admitted to the Union in 1791, the total number of states needed for ratification rose to eleven. Vermont ratified on November 3, 1791, approving all twelve amendments, and Virginia finally followed on December 15, 1791. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson announced the adoption of the ten successfully ratified amendments on March 1, 1792.
The Seventh Amendment is generally considered one of the more straightforward amendments of the Bill of Rights. Scholar Charles W. Wolfram states that it has usually “been interpreted as if it were virtually a self-explanatory provision”.
Unlike most of the provisions of the Bill of Rights, the Seventh Amendment has never been applied to the states. The Supreme Court stated in Walker v. Sauvinet (1875), Minneapolis & St. Louis Railroad v. Bombolis (1916) and Hardware Dealers’ Mut. Fire Ins. Co. of Wisconsin v. Glidden Co. (1931) that states were not required to provide jury trials in civil cases.Nonetheless, most states voluntarily guarantee the right to a civil jury trial, and they must do so in certain state court cases that are decided under federal law.
The historical test
The first judicial opinion issued on the amendment came in United States v. Wonson (1812), in which the federal government wished to retry the facts of a civil case it had lost against Samuel Wonson. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, acting as a circuit court judge, ruled for Wonson, stating that to retry the facts of the case would violate the Seventh Amendment. Regarding the amendment’s phrase “the rules of common law”, Story wrote:
Beyond all question, the common law here alluded to is not the common law of any individual state, (for it probably differs in all), but it is the common law of England, the grand reservoir of all our jurisprudence. It cannot be necessary for me to expound the grounds of this opinion, because they must be obvious to every person acquainted with the history of the law.
Wonson’s ruling established the “historical test”, which interpreted the amendment as relying on English common law to determine whether a jury trial was necessary in a civil suit. Applying the historical test in Parsons v. Bedford (1830), for example, the Supreme Court found that jury trials were not constitutionally guaranteed for cases under maritime law, an area in which English common law did not require juries. The Court further clarified this rule as a “fixed historical test” in Thompson v. Utah (1898), which established that the relevant guide was English common law of 1791, rather than that of the present day.
In Galloway v. United States (1943), the Court permitted a directed verdict (a verdict ordered by a judge on the basis of overwhelming lack of evidence) in a civil suit, finding that it did not violate the Seventh Amendment under the fixed historical test. The Court extended the amendment’s guarantees in Beacon Theatres v. Westover (1959) and Dairy Queen, Inc. v. Wood (1962), ruling in each case that all issues that required trial by jury under English common law also required trial by jury under the Seventh Amendment. This guarantee was also further extended to shareholder suits in Ross v. Bernhard (1970) and to copyright infringement lawsuits in Feltner v. Columbia Pictures TV (1998).
In Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc. (1996), the Court ruled that many parts of patent claims are questions of law rather than of fact, and that the Seventh Amendment guarantee of a jury trial therefore does not necessarily apply. Lawsuits against the federal government itself do not receive Seventh Amendment protections due to the doctrine of sovereign immunity. InLehman v. Nakshian (1981), the Court ruled that citizens may sue the federal government only in cases where such right has been granted by act of Congress.
The Supreme Court has held that the Seventh Amendment’s guarantee of a jury trial also guarantees a jury of sufficient size. While the Court found a six-member jury sufficient to meet the amendment’s requirements in Colgrove v. Battin (1973), it ruled in Ballew v. Georgia (1978) that a five-member jury violated the amendment’s intent. Regardless of size, the jury’s verdict must be unanimous.
Twenty Dollars Clause
Little historical evidence exists to interpret the Twenty Dollars Clause, which was added in a closed session of the Senate, and is often omitted in judicial and scholarly discussion of the amendment. A Harvard Law Review article described it as “mysterious … of shrouded origin and neglected for two centuries”, stating that “no one believes that the Clause bears on the right protected by the Seventh Amendment.” According to law professor Philip Hamburger, this clause was intended to become obsolete by inflation, so that its application to more cases would be phased in gradually.
Congress has never extended federal diversity jurisdiction to amounts that small. Under the current Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (28 U.S.C. §1332), the amount in dispute in diversity cases (which involve parties from different states) must exceed $75,000 in order for the case to be heard in federal court. However, civil cases may arise in federal court that are not diversity cases (e.g. in places like the District of Columbia that are federal jurisdictions), in which case the Twenty Dollars Clause may apply.
- All three states would later ratify the Bill of Rights for sesquicentennial celebrations in 1939.
- United States Government Printing Office. “SEVENTH AMENDMENT —- CIVIL TRIALS —- CONTENTS”. gpo.gov.
- Wood, pp. 14–16
- Beeman, pp. 341–43
- “CRS Annotated Constitution”. Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School. Retrieved October 17, 2013.
- Maier, p. 431
- Mahoney, Dennis J. (1986). “Seventh Amendment”. Encyclopedia of the American Constitution. Retrieved August 20, 2013.
- Labunski, p. 192
- “Bill of Rights”. National Archives. Archived from the original on April 4, 2013. Retrieved April 4, 2013.
- Wood, p. 69
- Wood, p. 71
- Levy, Leonard W. (1986). “Bill of Rights (United States)”. Encyclopedia of the American Constitution. – via HighBeam Research (subscription required). Retrieved July 16, 2013.
- Labunski, p. 245
- Labunski, p. 255
- Wolfram, p. 639
- “Seventh Amendment”. Constitutional Amendments. – via HighBeam Research (subscription required). January 1, 2008. Retrieved August 21, 2013.
- Moses, Margaret. “What the Jury Must Hear: The Supreme Court’s Evolving Seventh Amendment Jurisprudence“, George Washington Law Review, Vol. 68, p. 185 (2000) (in “the two states where the civil jury trial right is not constitutionally based, it is nonetheless provided either by statute or court rule”). See generally West Virginia Constitution, art. III (using a threshold amount of twenty dollars as in the U.S. Constitution).
- Dice v. Akron, C. & Y. R.R., 342 U.S. 359 (1952).
- Wolfram, p. 640
- Wolfram, p. 641
- Abrams, Norman (1986). “Jury Size”. Encyclopedia of the American Constitution. – via HighBeam Research(subscription required). Retrieved August 21, 2013.
- “The Twenty Dollars Clause”. The Harvard Law Review. – via HighBeam Research (subscription required). March 1, 2005. Retrieved August 21, 2013.
- Hamburger, Philip. “The Constitution’s Accommodation of Social Change“, Michigan Law Review, Vol. 88, pp. 296-97 (1989).
- Baicker-Mckee, p. 1266
- Capital Traction Co. v. Hof, 174 U.S. 1 (1899).
- Baicker-McKee, Steven; William M. Janssen; and John B. Corr (2008) . A Student’s Guide to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Thomson West.
- Beeman, Richard (2009). Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution. Random House.
- Labunski, Richard E. (2006). James Madison and the struggle for the Bill of Rights. Oxford University Press.
- Levy, Leonard Williams (1995). Seasoned Judgments: The American Constitution, Rights, and History. Transaction Publishers.
- Maier, Pauline (2010). Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787–1788. Simon and Schuster.
- Wolfram, Charles W. (1973). “The Constitutional History of the Seventh Amendment”, 57 Minnesota Law Review 639, 670-71.
- Kilman, Johnny and George Costello (Eds). (2000). The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation.
- CRS Annotated Constitution: Seventh Amendment