The Seventh Amendment: Text, Origins, and Meaning

Jury Trials in Civil Cases

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The Seventh Amendment to the United States Constitution ensures the right to a trial by jury in any civil lawsuit involving claims valued at more than $20. In addition, the amendment prohibits the courts from overturning a jury’s findings of fact in civil suits. The amendment does not, however, guarantee a trial by jury in civil cases brought against the federal government.

The rights of criminal defendants to a speedy trial by an impartial jury are protected by the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The complete text of the Seventh Amendment as adopted 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 reexamined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

Note that the amendment as adopted ensures the right to a jury trial only in civil suits involving disputed amounts that “exceed twenty dollars. While that might seem a trivial amount today, in 1789, twenty dollars was more than an average working American earned in a month. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, $20 in 1789 would be worth about $529 in 2017, due to inflation. Today, federal law requires a civil suit must involve a disputed amount of over $75,000 to be heard by a federal court.

What is a ‘Civil’ Case?

Rather than prosecution for criminal acts, civil cases involve disputes such as legal liability for accidents, breach of business contracts, most discrimination and employment-related disputes, and other non-criminal disputes between individuals. In civil actions, the person or organization filing the lawsuit — called the “plaintiff” or “petitioner” — seeks payment of monetary damages, a court order preventing the person being sued — called the “defendant” or “respondent” — from engaging in certain acts, or both.

How the Courts Have Interpreted the Sixth Amendment

As is the case with many provisions of the Constitution, the Seventh Amendment as written provides few specific details of how it should be applied in actual practice. Instead, these details have been developed over time by both the federal courts, through their rulings and interpretations, along with laws enacted by the U.S. Congress.

Differences in Civil and Criminal Cases

The effects of these court interpretations and laws are reflected in some of the main differences between criminal and civil justice.

Filing and Prosecuting Cases

Unlike civil misdeeds, criminal acts are considered to be offenses against the state or the entire society. For example, while a murder typically involves one person harming another person, the act itself is considered to be an offense against humanity. Thus, crimes like murder are prosecuted by the state, with charges against the defendant filed by a state prosecutor on behalf of the victim. In civil cases, however, it is up to victims themselves to file the suit against the defendant.

Trial by Jury

While criminal cases almost always result in a trial by jury, civil cases — under the provisions of the Seventh Amendment — allow for juries in some instances. However, many civil cases are decided directly by a judge. While they are not constitutionally required to do so, most states voluntarily allow jury trials in civil cases.

The amendment’s guarantee to a jury trial does not apply to civil cases involving maritime law, lawsuits against the federal government, or to most cases involving patent law. In all other civil cases, a jury trial can be waived at the consent of both the plaintiff and the defendant.

In addition, the federal courts have consistently ruled that the Seventh Amendment’s prohibition of overturning a jury's findings of fact applies to civil cases filed in both federal and state courts, to cases in state courts that involve federal law, and to state court cases reviewed by federal courts.

Standard of Proof

While guilt in criminal cases must be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt,” liability in civil cases must generally be proven by a lower standard of proof known as “the preponderance of the evidence.” This is generally interpreted as meaning that the evidence showed that events were more likely to have occurred in one way than in another.  

What does “preponderance of the evidence” mean? As with a “reasonable doubt” in criminal cases, the threshold of probability of proof is purely subjective. According to legal authorities, a “preponderance of the evidence” in civil cases may be as little as a 51% probability, compared to from 98% to 99% required to be proof “beyond a reasonable doubt” in criminal cases.

Punishment

Unlike criminal cases, in which defendants found guilty can be punished by time in prison or even the death penalty, defendants found to be at fault in civil cases generally face only monetary damages or court orders to take or not take some action.

For example, a defendant in a civil case could be found to be from 0% to 100% responsible for a traffic accident and thus liable for payment of a corresponding percentage of monetary damages suffered by the plaintiff. In addition, defendants in civil cases have the right to file a counter-suit against the plaintiff in an effort to recover any costs or damages they may have incurred.

Right to an Attorney

Under the Sixth Amendment, all defendants in criminal cases are entitled to an attorney. Those who want, but cannot afford an attorney must be provided with one free of charge by the state. Defendants in civil cases must either pay for an attorney, or choose to represent themselves.

Constitutional Protections of Defendants

The Constitution affords defendants in criminal cases many protections, such as the Fourth Amendment’s protection against illegal searches and seizures. However, many of these constitutional protections are not provided to defendants in civil cases.

This can generally be explained by the fact that because persons convicted of criminal charges face more severe potential punishment — from jail time to death — criminal cases warrant more protections and a higher standard of proof.

Possibility of Civil and Criminal Liability

While criminal and civil cases are treated very differently by the Constitution and the courts, the same acts can subject a person to both criminal and civil liability. For example, people convicted of drunk or drugged driving are typically also sued in civil court by the victims of accidents they may have caused.

Perhaps the most famous example of a party facing criminal and civil liability for the same act is the sensational 1995 murder trial of former football superstar O.J. Simpson. Accused of killing his former wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman, Simpson first faced a criminal trial for murder and later a “wrongful death” civil trial.

On October 3, 1995, partly due to the different standards of proof required in criminal and civil cases, the jury in the murder trial found Simpson not guilty due to a lack of adequate proof of guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” However, on February 11, 1997, a civil jury found by a “preponderance of the evidence” that Simpson had wrongfully caused both deaths and awarded the families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman a total of $33.5 million in damages.

Brief History of the Seventh Amendment

Largely in response to the Anti-Federalist party’s objections to the lack of specific protections of individual rights in the new Constitution, James Madison included an early version of the Seventh Amendment as part of the proposed “Bill of Rights” to Congress in the spring of 1789.

Congress submitted a revised version of the Bill of Rights, at the time composed of 12 amendments, to the states on September 28, 1789. By December 15, 1791, the required three-fourths of the states had ratified the 10 surviving amendments of the Bill of Rights, and on March 1, 1792, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson announced the adoption of the Seventh Amendment as a part of the Constitution.

Seventh Amendment Key Takeaways

  • The Seventh Amendment ensures the right to a trial by jury in civil cases.
  • The amendment does not guarantee a trial by jury in civil suits brought against the government.
  • In civil cases, the party filing the lawsuit is called the “plaintiff” or “petitioner.” The party being sued is called the “defendant” or “respondent.”
  • Civil cases involve disputes over non-criminal acts such as legal liability for accidents, breaches of business contracts, and illegal discrimination.
  • The standard of proof required in civil cases is lower than in criminal cases.
  • All parties involved in civil cases must provide their own lawyers.
  • Defendants in civil cases are not afforded the same constitutional safeguards as defendants in criminal cases.
  • While not constitutionally required to do so, most states comply with the provisions of the Seventh Amendment.
  • A person may face both civil and criminal trials for the same act.
  • The Seventh Amendment is part of the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights as ratified by the states on December 15, 1791.