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The 7th Amendment to the Constitution of the USA supports and enhances the provisions of the 6th Amendment.
In the 6th Amendment, the right of an accused person to a jury trial is guaranteed. In the 7th Amendment, this right is fine-tuned to establish clarity in civil cases. The 7th Amendment reads: “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 common law.”
Common law, which is mentioned on two occasions in the amendment, is the basis of the legal systems in both England and in the United States. Common law comprises customary laws that have been in existence since the Middle Ages. The idea of common law came to America as a result of the British colonization and continues as the bedrock of its legal system today. The founding fathers felt secure in referring to ‘common law’ as their compatriots would understand exactly what they meant.
A civil case is one where disputes are heard that involve companies, organizations or private citizens. A typical civil case might concern an individual suing a company for damages if a faulty product led to damage to his property. Those bringing the case can choose to have jury trial or to opt for a judge to rule alone.
In the late eighteenth century when the 7th Amendment was formulated , twenty dollars was a considerable amount of money. Today, a Federal court hearing a civil case will only do so if the amount of damages being claimed is more than $75,000.
The founding fathers were concerned that if trial by jury in civil cases disappeared, then decisions would have to be made solely by a judge. There was, they felt, a risk that a judge might be biased or even corrupted. This would be lessened if there was trial by jury. In some cases, it was felt that a judge might be more inclined to side with the government, leading to it having too much power.
When the US Constitution was being written, the abuses perpetrated by British judges in the thirteen colonies were well remembered. The judges had been appointed by the King, and invariably ruled in the King’s favor when hearing civil cases. There was, therefore, an important principle to be preserved.
The 7th Amendment’s purpose was to establish rules to govern civil trials. The 6th Amendment had made clear the rules regulatng criminal trials. It was, however, necessary to make clear the role of a jury in a civil trial. Juries, therefore, could establish matters of fact, and once established, no other court could alter that decision. Interpretation of the law was the role of the courts.
Trial by jury is an important principle, and the founding fathers guaranteed in the 7th Amendment that it would apply equally in civil cases.