By Tyler Bauer
This is the seventh of many blog posts that will be taking a deeper look at the various amendments to the United States Constitution, as well as proposed amendments to the United States Constitution which failed. The text of each amendment is taken from constitutionus.com and information on failed amendments is taken from www.lexisnexus.com.
The Seventh Amendment
What it Says
“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.”
What it Means
In civil cases (that is, cases between private parties rather than a private party and the government), there is a right to a trial by jury. The jury shall (usually) act as the fact-finders who determine liability or a lack thereof, and no court should question the jury’s (or judge’s) findings, except where courts are allowed to legally review such cases.
If you’re like me, drawing the line at twenty dollars probably seems odd. However, twenty dollars was a lot of money in 1791, the year this amendment was ratified. In fact, twenty dollars in 1791 is roughly worth $536.48 today. (In the interest of full disclosure, this figure could be way off – I just wanted to give a rough estimate to try to modernize the text).
Why it Matters
On the surface, the Seventh Amendment seems a bit redundant. After all, the Fifth Amendment protects us from being deprived of our property without due process, and the Sixth Amendment guarantees us a public trial by a jury of our peers. However, the Seventh Amendment is extremely important.
The Seventh Amendment is a necessary complement to the Sixth Amendment. Although they appear to address the same issue, each is limited in its own way. A close reading of the Sixth Amendment will reveal that the Sixth Amendment only applies to criminal trials. The Seventh Amendment, on the other hand, applies only to civil suits. Meanwhile, the Fifth Amendment applies to both criminal and civil cases. In other words, if you are hit by a drunk driver, the Sixth Amendment will apply to the criminal case in which the drunk driver will be punished by the government. The Seventh Amendment allows you to sue the drunk driver, allowing you to collect damages to repair your vehicle, cover your medical bills, etc.
While it may seem irrelevant nowadays (Twenty dollars isn’t that much, right?), establishing a minimum value on civil suits was – and still is – a great idea. If there was no established minimum for the value in controversy, there could be countless cases that simply aren’t worth anyone’s time. For example, if there was no minimum and you bumped into someone on the street and they dropped their coffee, they could sue you. We can all agree that would be a ridiculous lawsuit. Thanks to the twenty dollar minimum, such a lawsuit is impossible without further damage being done.
As an aside, I think it’d be a good idea to update the text of this amendment to reflect inflation today. I don’t know what the right value would be, but twenty dollars is too little for 2018. However, since the twenty dollar minimum hasn’t caused a problem (yet), this won’t change anytime soon.