7th Amendment

The 7th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the right of every American citizen to a trial by a jury of his peers in a civil court case. The writers’ objective in drafting this amendment as an addition to the Bill of Rights was to ensure that the government would not eliminate the practice of trial by jury. The major concern here was that, if trials were decided solely by judges, the judges would, more often than not, side with the government. This would, in turn, give the government too much power. To explore this concept, consider the following 7th Amendment definition.

Definition of 7th Amendment

Noun

  1. The constitutional amendment that protects the rights of American citizens to be allowed a trial by jury in a civil lawsuit.

Origin

December 15, 1791       Ratification of the amendment by Congress

What is the 7th Amendment

The 7th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects American citizens’ right to a trial by jury on civil, or non-criminal, issues. For example, the 7th Amendment states:

“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.”

The purpose in drafting the 7th Amendment was to prevent the U.S. government from abolishing jury trials, and becoming too powerful by allowing judges to decide cases. This had happened in the past to the colonists when judges were appointed by the king. In these cases, the judges would always take the king’s side. It was believed that a jury made up of local people, rather than a judge, would be more likely to provide their peer with a fair trial.

Civil cases differ from criminal cases in that, in a criminal case, the government charges the defendant with a crime, such as murder or burglary. If convicted, the offender may go to jail, be fined by the court, or both. Civil cases, on the other hand, are comprised of disputes among private citizens or organizations. Victims in civil cases typically sue for “damages,” or money as compensation for their losses.

For instance, a plaintiff in a civil case may sue a manufacturer after being sold a faulty product. The product may have caused him injury, or damaged his personal property, and so he sues to ask for compensation. In the case of an injury, he may sue for money to cover his medical bills, and lost wages if he had to take time off of work. Else, he may sue to replace the items that were damaged by the faulty product, such as if a curling iron caught fire and burned down his house.

In this case, a group of people come together to hear the case, and decide collectively on the defendant’s culpability for the loss. This is a trial by jury. The 7th Amendment does not specify how many people need to make up the jury, however most juries today are made up of 12 members.

With respect to the fact that the amendment states that the lawsuit must be for an award in excess of twenty dollars, this was a significantly larger amount of money back in 1791 when the amendment was drafted. Specifically, this number encompassed about a month’s worth of wages for the average worker. Now, the federal court will only hear cases for damages exceeding $75,000.

Jury Trials in Modern Civil Lawsuits

In a civil trial, a plaintiff is given the opportunity to argue his case in the hopes of receiving a judgment against the defendant for damages. The defendant is also given the chance to provide his own evidence to prove he does not owe the plaintiff money or damages. After both sides have presented their cases, the jury examines all of the evidence in order to make a decision as to whether the defendant should be held liable for the damages the plaintiff has claimed. If the jury finds the defendant to be responsible, as well as what damages he should be ordered to pay.

When it comes to federal jury trials in modern civil lawsuits, the jury’s decision must be made by a unanimous verdict. Each state, however, has different laws regarding whether or not a jury must reach a unanimous decision on a civil case.

If the jury is unable to reach a decision, then a mistrial is declared and the trial of the matter must go back to the beginning and start all over again. In jury trials in modern civil lawsuits, the parties to the action can agree to waive a jury, and submit the case to the judge based on its facts alone. In accordance with federal law, parties to jury trials in modern civil lawsuits can make a timely demand for a trial by jury by serving that demand on the opposing party in writing. Failure to serve such a demand is equal to that party waiving his right to a jury trial.

Courts Bound by the 7th Amendment Guarantee

The 7th Amendment concerns only those courts that are under the United States’ authority, meaning the country’s federal courts. This also applies to federal courts located in U.S. territories, as well as those found in the District of Columbia. For example, the 7th Amendment does not apply to state courts. However, when a state court is enforcing a right that was initially drafted by the government, the states are not permitted to eliminate the defendant’s right to a trial by jury.

7th Amendment Example Involving Copyright Infringement

An example of the 7th Amendment being debated in a court of law concerned severe accusations of copyright infringement. C. Elvin Feltner, Jr. owns Krypton International Corporation, a company that operates three television stations that ran several once-popular television shows that were licensed from Columbia Pictures. Such shows included Who’s the Boss?, Hart to Hart, and Silver Spoons.

Krypton became delinquent in its payment of royalties to Columbia, and so Columbia revoked its license to run the shows that were licensed by Columbia. However, Krypton did not heed Columbia’s order, and continued to run the shows anyway.

As expected, Columbia sued Feltner and Krypton, along with other executives who worked at Krypton, for copyright infringement. The trial court found Krypton’s infringement to be willful, and so the court denied Feltner’s request for a jury trial on the issue of statutory damages. The court held that every broadcast of every episode that was run on every television station was a separate infringement, and awarded the statutory maximum of $20,000 for each of these 440 infringements. The total damages that were awarded to Columbia equaled $8.8 million.

Appeal

Feltner appealed to the Ninth Circuit, however the Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s award. Feltner then appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled that there is no provision in the statute that allows for a jury trial on the issue of statutory damages. Therefore, the Court needed to examine whether the law was on Felton’s side insofar as there being a requirement for a trial by jury as provided in the 7th Amendment. The question then became whether statutory damages should have been awarded in the form of a trial in a court of law, or in a court of equity.

If the damages were to be awarded in a court of law, then yes, Felton could demand a trial by jury. If, however, the damages were to be awarded in a court of equity, then a trial by jury was not available to him unless the statute specifically provided for it. The Court ultimately decided that, in the history of copyright infringement cases, damages had normally been decided in a court of law, not a court of equity. Therefore, the Court ruled that Feltner was indeed entitled to a jury trial on the issue of statutory damages, and the amount that should have truly been awarded to Columbia.

Amended Award

The Court reversed the lower courts’ judgments and remanded the case back to the trial court. While Feltner may have been happy about this at first, he certainly wasn’t at the finish line. After the jury trial in the matter was held, the jury actually awarded $72,000 in statutory damages for each of the 440 acts of infringement, for a total damages award of $31.68 million – nearly four times the damages award ordered by the judge at the previous bench trial.

Feltner appealed this decision, arguing that the Supreme Court’s prior ruling rendered statutory damages unconstitutional, and therefore void. The Ninth Circuit, however, rejected Feltner’s argument and affirmed the new damages award issued by the jury. Feltner petitioned the Supreme Court once again to decide the case on its merits. However, this time, the Court ruled against Feltner, and the $31.68 million decision was upheld.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Court of Equity – A court authorized to apply the principles of equity, rather than the law, to the cases that are brought before it.
  • Culpability – Blameworthiness, deserving of blame or censure.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Mistrial – A trial that has not successfully been completed.
  • Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.
  • Statutory Damages – Damages that are awarded in civil cases wherein the amount awarded is specified within the related statute, rather than calculated based on the degree of harm to the plaintiff.

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