Trial in Civil Cases (VII)

Starting with the assumption that government ought to protect property and personal liberty, as outlined in the Constitution, the Founding Fathers were faced with the question of how best to achieve these ideals through the courts. The Framers had inherited trial by jury, a feature of British common law, and chose to retain it in the Bill of Rights of the Constitution as the best means to protect fundamental rights. There was consensus at the time that trial by jury should be applied in the United States, but there was debate over whether it ought to be included in the text of the Constitution. Although some argued that trial by jury ought to be established through the legislature, it was enacted in the Bill of Rights, which placed it on higher ground as a constitutional right that is inherent, and therefore its core cannot be undermined via ordinary legislation. The Seventh Amendment to the Constitution provides for the right to trial by jury in common law suits when the value in controversy is greater than $20, a right that is therefore fundamental and cannot be revoked via normal legislation.

Generally, the role of the jury is to consider questions of fact, including the judgment of the credibility of testimony in court, while judges consider issues of law. Trial by jury, although it can be more costly and inefficient than trial by judge, allows its citizenry to retain power over the judicial branch through this fact-finding role. At the time of the framing of the constitution, proponents of jury trial in civil cases pointed out its virtues, including the fact that jury trial allows citizens to safeguard each other’s wellbeing and that it protects liberty by limiting judicial despotism and arbitrary decision making, thereby enhancing the integrity of the judicial system. Trial by jury was viewed as a necessary check on the power of the government to take one’s livelihood in civil and criminal trials and one’s freedom in criminal trials. Thus, the constitutional guarantee of juries in civil trials ensures that the rights of all are weighed not by the government, but by a neutral group of one’s peers. The Founding Fathers viewed the jury in criminal and civil cases as a means to ensure fair and more legitimate proceedings and outcomes in the court system by checking prosecutorial and judicial despotism.

JAMES F. Van ORDEN

References and Further Reading

  • Abramson, Jeffrey. We, the Jury: The Jury System and the Ideal of Democracy. New York: Basic Books, 1994.
  • Jonakait, Randolph N. The American Jury System. New Haven, Conn.: University Press, 2003.
  • Lehman, Godfrey D. We the Jury: The Impact of Jurors on Our Basic Freedoms: Great Jury Trials of History. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1997.

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