A Brief and Simple Reminder of the Distinguished
History of the Right to Trial By Jury for Civil Litigants
One of the critical questions that every civil litigant needs to ask themselves is whether to seek a jury trial. Our law firm frequently tries cases to the jury. We have tried all kinds of cases to the jury, including propane explosion cases, car accidents, truck accidents, breaches of contract, gross negligence, severe, catastrophic injury claims of all types, and many others. So today, we thought we would explore what exactly is a jury and where does the right derive.
•· What is a jury?
Simply stated, a Jury is a group of citizens which hears the testimony in legal disputes and determines what it believes is the truth. The word originates with the French word, jurer, which means “to swear an oath.” (Did you know that jurors today have to take an oath, just as a judge or a witness does?)
•· How did the jury system come about?
Although the concept of deciding issues by one’s peers (as opposed to tribe or community elders, rulers, dictators, monarchs and the like) may have existed earlier, it is largely considered by historians that the jury trial arose with the Magna Carta.
Rich English guys, known as barons, compelled King John to approve the Magna Carta in 1215. King John apparently was akin to a dictator, but was hurting for money, and therefore in a weakened state of being.
One of the key terms of the Magna Carta provides that “no freeman shall be imprisoned, deprived of property, exiled, or destroyed, except by the lawful judgment of his peers.”
In early North America, certain colonies were British. In those colonies, juries were used in civil trials. The colonists, increasingly uneasy with the British method of rule, regarded the jury trials as important rights. One of the reasons is that they served as a means of stopping enforcement of unpopular British laws. Thus, in a sense, trial by jury in that age was an early attempt to establish forms of independence.
•· Today’s Constitutional Right to a Jury
After the Declaration of Independence was signed, the colonies’ state constitutions preserved the right to a jury trial in civil cases as well as criminal. Yet, the first United States Constitution took that right away by omitting it from the text of the Constitution.
Two years later, in 1791, the Bill of Rights was passed. Within the Bill of Rights is contained the Seventh Amendment, which guarantees the right of trial in all civil cases in which more than $20 is at stake. Specifically, the United States Constitution, through the 7thAmendment, provides:
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 reexamined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.
Even in 1791, $20 was not a lot of money. There is no good way to compare it in today’s dollars because the eras are so different, but economists would generally agree at most it would be about $1500 in today’s money. In Iowa courts, that is small claims court.
What does the $20 threshold tell you about the great importance that the right to a jury trial had to our founding fathers? Do modern Americans believe that we should uphold, honor and protect our Constitutional rights? I think so, even though most of that conversation occurs in the context of the Second Amendment right to bear arms. The jury trial is one of those fundamental rights that we should protect, uphold and embrace.