The Seventh Amendment was passed along with nine others that together became known as the Bill of Rights in 1791. There was a huge concern that without written rights, the national government would obtain too much power and become oppressive. Under British rule, colonists relied on civil jurors to nullify unjust laws, like Britain's infamous tea taxes. Thus the Seventh Amendment was created to the right of trial by jury in common law.
"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, then according to the rules of the common law."
What Does It Mean?
The Seventh Amendment guarantees the right to a jury trial in civil disputes. Juries are responsible for making a decision or the finding of facts in such cases. They are meant to protect citizens from a judge's biases or the government's abuse of power.
There are two separate clauses in the Seventh Amendment: the Preservation Clause and the Re-examination Clause. The Preservation Clause states which cases must receive a civil jury - cases of common law in which the amount being disputed is over twenty dollars. Common law is law that originates from judicial authorities and their precedents rather than the usual processes of the executive and legislative branches. The Re-examination Clause prevents judges from overturning the verdicts of such juries. This means the courts must respect a jury's findings, provided that the jury trial follows proper procedure.
Major Court Cases
Early Supreme Court cases had the task of defining what exactly counts as common law in terms of the Seventh Amendment. In 1812, United States v. Wonson ruled that the phrase does not refer to state common law but English common law. This definition was first applied in 1830 to Parsons v. Bedford, but was later refined in 1935. Dimick v. Schiedt firmly established that common law is the common law of England during the time of the Amendment's ratification in 1791. Thus, justices must look back to English precedent when deciding whether certain cases require jury trials.
However, this does not mean civil disputes are tightly tied to the practices of the past. The 1935 ruling in Baltimore & Carolina Line, Inc. v. Redman stated that the Seventh Amendment protects the "substance" or spirit of one's right to a jury trial, not the strict procedures of it. This expanded interpretation has been upheld in subsequent cases. For example, the Court decided in 1973 during Colgrove v. Battin that a jury of six suffices in such trials even though eighteenth-century English law required twelve.
The Court's definition of common law makes it fairly clear which cases require the right to jury trials. However, with certain evolving situations, the answer isn't always immediately obvious, like in Feltner v. Columbia Pictures Television, Inc. The 1998 ruling extended the Seventh Amendment to copyright infringement lawsuits. However, just two years prior, Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc. (1996) found that the Seventh Amendment doesn't necessarily apply to patent claims.
The Seventh Amendment is considered one of the most straightforward amendments within the Bill of Rights. It's also one of the few amendments that hasn't been incorporated. In other words, the Seventh Amendment only applies to the federal government, not individual state governments. Almost every state has protected the right to jury trials for certain civil cases, but the fact remains that this right isn't guaranteed for state civil cases.
Interestingly enough, the exact wording of the Seventh Amendment doesn't generate much debate, not even the Twenty Dollar Clause. The amount has never been changed to account for inflation, which would put the amount over $500 today. Instead, the dollar value stipulation has functionally been ignored, especially since federal law requires the disputed amount exceed $75,000 for the case to be heard in federal court.
Part of the reason the Seventh Amendment isn't hotly debated is that very few cases are tried by juries. Starting around the 1930s, US courts began to prefer judges over juries, granting them more and more power. Modern-day judges thus hear and decide a larger number of civil cases than juries do. Furthermore, the majority of cases are settled outside of court. Thus, the right to a jury trial in civil cases infrequently comes up.
The Seventh Amendment still remains important to anybody pursuing civil claims. Juries, while sometimes unpredictable, guard citizens from judicial overreach and biased proceedings. Sometimes a judge should not be the sole arbiter of a case, and the Seventh Amendment allows individuals to exercise their right to a jury determination.