Passed by Congress September 25, 1789. Ratified December 15, 1791. The first 10 amendments form the Bill of Rights.
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 the common law.
The Seventh Amendment extends the right to a jury trial to federal civil cases such as car accidents, disputes between corporations for breach of contract, or most discrimination or employment disputes. In civil cases, the person bringing the lawsuit (the plaintiff) seeks money damages or a court order preventing the person being sued (the defendant) from engaging in certain conduct. To win, the plaintiff must prove his or her case by “a preponderance of the evidence,” that is by over fifty percent of the proof.
Although the Seventh Amendment itself says that it is limited to “suits at common law,” meaning cases that triggered the right to a jury under English law, the amendment has been found to apply in lawsuits that are similar to the old common law cases. For example, the right to a jury trial applies to cases brought under federal statutes that prohibit race or gender discrimination in housing or employment. But importantly, the Seventh Amendment guarantees the right to a jury trial only in federal court, not in state court.
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The Constitution includes trial by jury for the third time in the Seventh Amendment. It protects the right to a jury trial in civil cases, those deciding disputes between private parties over noncriminal matters, such as personal injuries or contracts. Criminal cases are those in which the government punishes individuals for committing crimes. The Seventh Amendment also limits a judge’s power to overturn factual decisions by a jury, which could otherwise render a jury’s power meaningless. Some Americans believe that, in an age of increasingly complex litigation, a civil jury is an incompetent artifact that actually endangers due process of law. Others argue that trial by jury, in both civil and criminal cases, ensures that the American people participate directly in self-government.
Linda R. Monk, J.D., is a constitutional scholar, journalist, and nationally award-winning author. A graduate of Harvard Law School, she twice received the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Award, its highest honor for law-related media. Her books include The Words We Live By: Your Annotated Guide to the Constitution, Ordinary Americans: U.S. History Through the Eyes of Everyday People, and The Bill of Rights: A User’s Guide. For more than 25 years, Dr. Monk has written commentary for newspapers nationwide, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Miami Herald, and Huffington Post. In addition, she has appeared on MSNBC, C-SPAN, and NPR.