The 7th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is part of the Bill of Rights ratified by Congress in 1791.
The original 7th Amendment text reads:
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, then according to the rules of the common law.
The 7th Amendment ensures U.S. citizens the right to a jury trial in most civil cases. It also disallows the court from overturning the jury’s decision in these cases. Although this was originally and still is a law that applies to federal cases only, just about every state in the union voluntarily complies and in district courts, civil cases are allowed to have a jury of at least six members present.
The 7th Amendment is pretty straightforward, and there is little opportunity for misinterpretation. Generally, most civil cases are entitled to a jury trial. Although there are acceptions, the 7th Amendment is not often opposed or disputed.
However, the actual text states that the right to a trial by jury “shall be preserved,” that does not mean it is guaranteed and it does leave a significant loophole for the court to use if a case does not qualify to receive 7th Amendment benefits. Things like patent cases are more questions to be answered than civil disputes and therefore may not be eligible.
Obviously, in the time when the 7th Amendment was written, twenty dollars was worth much more than it is today so just about every civil case falls under this directive. Constitution scholars believe that it was included as a way to preserve the law as inflation phased it out.
At the federal level, civil cases tried by a jury must exceed $75,000 based on diversity of citizenship. Further, the law prohibits the court from re-examining the facts and finding new arguments after a jury has already decided the fate of the case.
A very famous 7th Amendment case was Feltner v. Columbia Pictures Television, Inc., in 1998. The case involved the owner of 3 television stations who continued to air Columbia TV shows after they revoked his license due to non-payment of royalties. Because of Feltner’s poor attitude and willful disregard for their agreement the court refused his request for a jury trial. Feltner appealed, and the Supreme Court overturned the ruling claiming “if there is to be an award of statutory damages in a copyright infringement case, then the opposing party has the right to demand a jury trial.” Prior to this case, there was no precedent in applying the 7th Amendment to a case where statutory damages were an issue.
In Slocum v. New York Insurance Co., (1913), the Supreme Court held fast to the rule of not re-examining or overriding the evidence used by the jury to come to an agreement about the case.
During The Justices v. Murray, (1869), Justice Samuel Nelson hammered this idea home and reminded the court that only in cases of appeal is the evidence re-examined by the court and the decision of a jury possibly overturned.
Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc. (1996), taught us that patent cases are unusual in that they do not qualify under the 7th Amendment and are not entitled to a jury trial.
In all of these cases, Walker v. Sauvinet (1875), Hardware Dealers’ Mut. Fire Ins. Co. of Wisconsin v. Glidden Co. (1931), and Minneapolis & St. Louis Railroad v. Bombolis (1916), the Supreme Court ruled that states were not subject to the 7th Amendment and that district court cases were not allowed jury trials. However most of the states now voluntarily honor the 7th Amendment.
Modern life is nothing like when our founding fathers penned the U.S. Bill of Rights. However, the 7th Amendment is used daily as civil cases are legally granted jury trials, and justices and judges let the jury’s decision stand and do not try to override or manage the outcome. The Founders feared that a corrupt government would breach the rights of U.S. citizens the way Britain had done to settlers for years. The U.S. Constitution has provided a solid guideline, which has prevented too much government corruption, and citizens get to enjoy many freedoms due to the laws laid out in the Bill of Rights.
The 7th Amendment is very self-explanatory and therefore not widely disputed or used as a point of contention in modern court cases. Civil cases conducted in a district or federal courts both honor the 7th Amendment and are awarded jury trials.