The Seventh Amendment: keeping federal justice democratic

Hello and welcome to part 8 in our series on what’s in the Bill of Rights. Today we look at the Seventh Amendment. It’s short and to the point:

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.

There are two rights expressed here: first, the right to a jury trial in civil cases tried in federal courts; second, the right not to have the facts of a case as determined by a jury overturned.

The first right guarantees that people facing civil trial in federal court will not get different treatment than people in state or local courts. If trial by jury is the gold standard, then every civilian court in the U.S. should offer it. This was meant to prevent the federal government from allowing one person (the judge) or a cabal of high officials to use their personal discretion to decide cases. It was also meant to keep federal courts public: they could not become places where no one knew what happened and no one got to witness the proceedings.

The second right is trickier, and some analyses of the amendment just skip it. It says that the facts of a case cannot be retried. That means that while a jury’s verdict may be overturned by an appeal and a new trial, the facts of the case cannot be retried. If a jury establishes certain facts, a new trial cannot ask that those facts be thrown into question again—unless the lawyers can prove that there was misconduct in the original trial, such as evidence being destroyed or suppressed, or witnesses committing perjury. Then a mistrial is called, new evidence can be introduced, and the facts re-examined.

Oddly, the Seventh Amendment has never been applied to the states. It addresses only federal court cases. But all the states have always voluntarily upheld it, providing jury trials for all civil cases.

Next time: the shortest amendment

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