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The Right to Jury Trial in Civil Cases: Reasserting the Importance of the Seventh Amendment

February 25, 2015

The right to a jury trial in criminal cases is well known, but the right to a jury trial in civil cases is also a sacrosanct right under the United States Constitution.

The Seventh Amendment is under attack, argues Joanne Doroshow, executive director of the Center for Justice and Democracy at New York Law School. In a recent column published in The Huffington Post, Doroshow claims that this part of the Bill of Rights, which grants Americans the right to bring a civil claim before a jury of his or her peers (rather than a lone judge), is being actively undermined by legislatures largely motivated and funded by special interests.

Doroshow traces the Seventh Amendment to its historic roots, stating that the framers of the constitution viewed jury trials as “indispensible” to any functioning judicial system. Courts run by an individual, it would then follow, are far too swayed by arbitrary factors. She also quotes Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist, who calls jury trials “an important bulwark against tyranny and corruption, a safeguard too precious to be left to the whim of the sovereign, or, it might be added, to that of the judiciary.”

The importance of a jury trial to the civil justice system has shifted slowly over time on a number of fronts, Doroshow notes. She begins with an explanation of caps on damages, which we have written about extensively in the past. This occurs when a state legislature decides on a maximum amount that may be collected in a civil suit. Proponents argue that this practice curbs gigantic jury awards (which data suggests do not happen very often) while critics say it imposes a one-size-fits-all award without any consideration for the uniqueness of circumstances. For example, while a $500,000 award may cover an elderly person’s medical bills, that same amount will not go very far in the case of a child who sustains a birth injury and who requires round-the-clock care for life.

Another measure, known as “loser pays” legislation or the “English rule,” would require the losing side in a lawsuit to pay the legal bills of the winning side. While those who support such a rule claim that it will curb so-called “frivolous lawsuits,” it will undoubtedly limit the ability of individuals with meritorious claims to file suit as well. Doroshow notes that this dates back to English common law, where aristocrats enacted such legislation in order to keep their families protected from those who might have legitimate claims but who were too poor to risk having to pay astronomical legal bills.

Corporations generally do not want jury trials, and have advocated limiting individuals’ access to a jury, so it should be no surprise that every major telecommunications company, many banks, credit card providers, and other giants like Starbucks, Ticketmaster, Dell, Toshiba, and Sony require that customers waive their rite to sue in favor of forced arbitration. In a system like this, corporations generally get to pick mediators to settle disputes and disagreements. It should be pretty evident that in situations like these, individuals have the deck stacked against them.

The points that Doroshow effectively lays out are very frightening. As we have indicated time and time again, the judicial branch of the United States government is by far the most marginalized and trivialized despite its importance in interpreting laws and setting precedents for future disputes. These efforts to circumvent the Seventh Amendment are more evidence that the pro-business lobby has no problem hijacking the civil justice system and using it to its own advantage at the expense of the private individual.

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