A Series on the Constitutional Amendments: The Seventh

The scene at the signing of the US Constitution.

‘The bedrock of our democracy is the rule of law and that means we have to have an independent judiciary, judges who can make decisions independent of the political winds that are blowing.’

– Caroline Kennedy

Having already addressed many concerns with the courts and juries in previous Amendments, the Founding Fathers moved on to the last hurdle in regards to court processes. While the right to trial by jury had already been established in the Fifth and Sixth Amendments, it was important that they ensure that right for Civil Suits as well. This applies to any and all civil laws passed by the federal government. The text of the Amendment 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 re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.’

In order to put this into perspective, we must have an idea of what the value of twenty dollars in that time period means today. Adjusting for inflation, the twenty dollars mentioned in the amendment rounds out to roughly Four Hundred and Seventy-Seven dollars. This is a little more than a speeding ticket in the State of California for perspective.

So in reality any case in which you break a federal law and are fined more than that amount you do have a right to a trial by jury in this case. It’s important to note that this is regarding FEDERAL law not state law. The right to trial by jury is already in place in the states in certain circumstances but Federal fines are another matter entirely.

In Tull v. United States (1987) the Seventh Amendment was invoked by Mr. Tull when the Federal Government brought a lawsuit against him in regards to waste dumping. His request was denied and he was found guilty. Mr. Tull brought the case to the Supreme Court where the Justices found this to be an egregious violation of his Seventh Amendment Rights and sided with Mr. Tull giving him the chance to have a trial by jury as he had initially requested.

In 1991, C. Elvin Feltner was sued by Columbia PIctures Television for a mess involving copyright infringement and royalty payments. Mr. Feltner was found to have been in violation and forced to pay penalties under the copyright law. During these proceedings he was denied a trial by jury by the district courts. The Supreme Court voted unanimously on the case of Feltner v. Columbia Pictures Television Inc. in favor of Mr. Feltner. While the law might not have specified certain aspects of the case the amount of money awarded under a Federal Law certainly afforded Mr. Feltner the right to a trial by jury.

There isn’t much else to say about the Seventh Amendment as it depends a lot on the Fifth and Sixth Amendments for its basis. These three Amendments set the bedrock of the Federal Court system and the idea of innocent until proven guilty. The Eighth Amendment, which will be discussed next week, allows the integrity of the justice system established here to not be compromised.


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