The Seventh Amendment: 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.
The Seventh Amendment formally established the rules governing civil trials, as opposed to criminal cases. Its main purpose was to distinguish between the responsibilities of the courts which decided the meaning of laws and those of juries which decided matters of facts as presented in a case.
In the 1770’s, more and more colonists sitting on juries were rejecting British statutes and finding fellow colonists innocent of charges. As a result, England suspended most jury trials and replaced them with special courts in which Crown officials acted as both the judge and the jury. The Founders created the Seventh Amendment to prevent a similar encroachment by the new Federal government on the rights of Americans. James Madison, the Father of the Bill of Rights, believed trial by jury was as “essential to secure the liberty of the people as any one of the pre-existent rights of nature”.
Importantly, they based many of the Amendment’s principles on “common law”. This type of law is so named because when originated it was “common” to all the King’s courts in England. Essentially, it is a body of unwritten laws based on legal precedents established by the courts as opposed to statutory law which is based on written statutes enacted by a legislature.
Common law is most often used in unusual circumstances when the government has not previously created a law to address a situation. In those cases, what was decided before would apply to the current suit. Today about one third of the world’s population, including citizens in the United States, live in a country which practices both common and statutory law.
The opening section of the Amendment is called the “Preservation Clause” because it grants that “where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved”. Essentially, this provision determines the types of cases that juries are required to decide (those with a value over $20).
Interestingly, no one really knows what was intended with the “$20 clause”. It was added during a closed session of Congress and neither Madison nor any of the others who drafted the Amendment left us any notes. In case you were wondering, that $20 in 1789 would be the equivalent of $300 today.
The most important provision of the Seventh Amendment is the “Re-examination Clause” (no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States). This critical section guarantees that decisions based on the facts as viewed by a jury cannot be overturned by judges.
In other words, even if a judge or the government feels the jury has reached its verdict in error and clearly not consistent with the facts, the decision must stand. This element of the clause means the people decide the fate of a fellow citizen and not an indifferent and, perhaps, vengeful government.
It is important to keep in mind a jury’s decision is a “finding” of the facts in a case and whether the facts fit the charges brought against the defendant. This is why judges ask jury foremen how the jury “finds” the defendant. It does not make a statement regarding the fairness or justice of the law itself.
WHY IT MATTERS So why does it matter to us today that the Seventh Amendment prohibits courts from overturning decisions made by juries?
Our Forefathers had experienced a country in which the monarchy had been both the judge and the jury. This one-sided system was terribly unfair. In response, they created the Seventh Amendment.
Its prohibition on a judge or court overturning a finding of the facts by a jury of a defendant’s peers is a critical protection from governmental overreach. Because of this amendment, it is not up to the government to decide if someone is innocent or guilty, but rather it is for the people to decide.
In our American judicial system, where the government derives its power from the people, this Amendment reinforced the concept that the people are in charge. All of us should appreciate this gift from our Founding Fathers.
SUGGESTED READING A readable book on common law is “The Annotated Common Law”. This 2011 version of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes, Jr.’s classic comes with comments explaining the various concepts of common law.
PLACES TO VISIT The Law Library of Congress is housed in the James Madison Building in Washington, DC. Established in 1832, its vast collections make it the largest law library in the world.
Until next time, may your motto be “Ducit Amor Patriae,” Love of country leads me.
Tom Hand is a West Point alumnus and a Ford Plantation resident. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. And, read his blog at americanacorner.com.