The topic of discussion for this Constitution Monday comes from the Seventh Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America: “In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserve….” This provision gives each defendant in a civil case the same right as one in a criminal trial IF the case involves at least $20.
“W. Cleon Skousen explained, “The Founders had originally provided for a jury trial in criminal cases but had not included civil cases for two reasons: (1) Civil procedures were so varied in the states that it was not considered justifiable to impose the jury system on those that were using judges to decide both civil and equity cases. (2) It was felt that judges would be more competent to assess damages and liabilities in damage suits and contract cases than a jury.” (See The Making of America – The Substance and Meaning of the Constitution, p. 710.)
Eric Grant of The Heritage Foundation explained, “Toward the end of the Constitutional Convention, Hugh Williamson of North Carolina noted that `no provision was yet made for juries in civil cases and suggested the necessity of it.’ Elbridge Gerry agreed, while George Mason further argued that the omission demonstrated that the Constitution needed a Bill of Rights. Nathaniel Gorham responded that the question should be left to Congress because of complexities in determining what kind of civil cases should be given to a jury. A few days later, when Gerry and Pinckney moved to insert `And a trial by jury shall be preserved as usual in civil cases,’ Gorham argued that there was no usual form, because the structure of civil juries varied among the states. Apparently sensing the difficulty in phrasing the guarantee, the Convention unanimously defeated the motion.
“It was a costly oversight, for the omission of a guarantee of civil juries occasioned the greatest opposition to the Constitution in the ratifying conventions….
“The Seventh Amendment, passed by the First Congress without debate, cured the omission by declaring that the right to a jury trial shall be preserved in common-law cases, thus leaving the traditional distinction between cases at law and those in equity or admiralty, where there normally was no jury….” (See The Heritage Guide to the Constitution, pp. 358-359.)