“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.” 7th Amendment to the US Constitution
In a recent New York Times article, the precipitous decline of jury trials in criminal cases was exposed and bemoaned by lawyers, legal scholars, and judges. While the article focused primarily on criminal cases, the same decline is evident in civil cases, including injury and medical product liability matters.
“It’s hugely disappointing,” said Judge Jed S. Rakoff, a 20-year veteran of the Manhattan federal bench. “A trial is the one place where the system really gets tested. Everything else is done behind closed doors.”
Yet, the right to trial by jury is a fundamental notion found in our country’s founding documents including the Declaration of Independence and the 7th Amendment to the US Constitution. In enumerating a list of grievances against King George, the signers of the Declaration of Independence included the right to a trial by jury as a fundamental human right. This is what they wrote, “For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury.”
The 7th Amendment, part of the Bill of Rights, is clear on this point. While issues of law are to be determined by the Court, issues of fact are to be determined by the jury.
Legal scholar and New York appellate attorney Norman A. Olch writes, “For the revolutionaries of 1776 and the later Constitution writers, trial by jury was integral to a free society. The point of trial by jury is that important legal decisions, such as guilt or innocence, should not be made by government officials–judges–but by the community which the jury represents.”
When citizens are their right to a jury trial our entire system of justice suffers. Trials by jury assure the important “checks and balances” of a free society. When that right is usurped, justice is miscarried. In the civil system, such miscarriages occur when legislatures impose restrictions on civil matters in order to protect insurance companies, large pharmaceutical companies, and medical device manufacturers. Such restrictions on one’s right to a trial by jury would be anathema to the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the Fathers of the Constitution. The right to a trial by jury was so important to the Founding Fathers they were willing to die in order to protect and preserve that fundamental right.