The Seventh Amendment 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, 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 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. While the Seventh Amendment’s
provision for jury trials in civil cases has never been incorporated almost every
state voluntarily complies with this requirement. The prohibition of
overturning a jury’s findings of fact applies to federal cases, state cases
involving federal law, and to review of state cases by federal courts. United
States v. Wonson 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. Text
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.
Background 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.
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
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 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 a
constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to jury trial in civil cases.
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.
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.
Judicial interpretation 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, Minneapolis & St. Louis Railroad v. Bombolis and Hardware
Dealers’ Mut. Fire Ins. Co. of Wisconsin v. Glidden Co. 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, 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,, 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, 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, which established that
the relevant guide was English common law of 1791, rather than that of the
present day. In Chauffeurs, Teamsters, and Helpers Local No. 391 v. Terry, the
Court explained that the right to a jury trial provided by the Seventh Amendment
encompasses more than the common law forms of action recognized in 1791, but
rather any lawsuit in which parties’ legal rights were to be determined, as
opposed to suits which only involve equitable rights and remedies.
In Galloway v. United States, the Court permitted a directed verdict 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 and Dairy Queen, Inc. v. Wood, 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 and to copyright
infringement lawsuits in Feltner v. Columbia Pictures TV.
In Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc., 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. In
Lehman v. Nakshian, the Court ruled that citizens may sue the federal government
only in cases where such right has been granted by act of Congress.
=Jury size=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, it ruled in Ballew v. Georgia
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 out
gradually. Congress has never extended federal
diversity jurisdiction to amounts that small. Under the Federal Rules of Civil
Procedure, the amount in dispute must exceed $75,000 for a case to be heard in
federal court based on diversity of the parties’ citizenship. However, civil
cases may arise in federal court that are not diversity cases, in which case
the Twenty Dollars Clause may apply.=Re-examination of facts=
The Re-Examination Clause of the Seventh Amendment states: “In suits at common
law, … no fact tried by jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any Court of the
United States, than according to the rules of the common law.” This clause
forbids any court from reexamining or overturning any factual determinations
made by a jury guaranteeing that facts decided by that jury cannot be
reexamined at a later date. Exceptions to this prohibition are possible if it
is later determined that legal errors were made or evidence submitted was
insufficient in some way. In such cases the reexamination is conducted by
another jury so that the decision is still left in the hands of the people.
The clause applies only to cases where private rights i.e. rights that exist
between private citizens have been violated. The Re-Examination Clause
applies not only to federal courts, but also to “a case tried before a jury in a
state court and brought to the Supreme Court on appeal.”
Justice Samuel Nelson wrote the opinion of the Supreme Court in The Justices v.
Murray, 76 U.S. 9 Wall. 274, in which he quoted Justice Joseph Story to explain
the modes to reexamine facts tried by juries according to common law: “Mr.
Justice Story […] referring to this part of the amendment, observed […] that it
was ‘a prohibition to the courts of the United States to re-examine any facts
tried by a jury in any other manner [than according to Common Law].’ […] He
further observed that ‘the only modes known to the common law to re-examine
such facts was the granting of a new trial by the court where the issue was
tried, or the award of a venire facias de novo, by the appellate court, for
some error of law that had intervened in the proceedings.’”
As common law provided, the judge could set aside a jury verdict when the judge
decided that the verdict was contrary to the evidence or the law. Common law
precluded the judge from himself entering a verdict; a new trial, with a
new jury, was the only course permissible. In Slocum v. New York
Insurance Co., the Supreme Court upheld this rule. Later cases have undermined
Slocum, but generally only when the evidence is overwhelming, or if a
specific law provides narrow guidelines by which there can be no reasonable
question as to the required outcome, may the court enter “judgment as a matter of
law” or otherwise set aside the jury’s findings.
Baicker-McKee, Steven; William M. Janssen; and John B. Corr . A
Student’s Guide to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Thomson West.
Beeman, Richard. Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution.
Random House. Labunski, Richard E.. James Madison and
the struggle for the Bill of Rights. Oxford University Press.
Levy, Leonard Williams. Seasoned Judgments: The American Constitution,
Rights, and History. Transaction Publishers.
Maier, Pauline. Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787–1788.
Simon and Schuster. Wolfram, Charles W.. “The Constitutional
History of the Seventh Amendment”, 57 Minnesota Law Review 639, 670-71.
External links Kilman, Johnny and George Costello.. The
Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation.
CRS Annotated Constitution: Seventh Amendment