Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

August 14, 2013

Scout Report: The Seventh Amendment stretch

By Clinton Gill
Glade Sun editor

CROSSVILLE — For anyone who has been keeping score, its been several weeks since I last wrote on the Constitution. Actually, I took the summer off from my study (borrowing a baseball analogy, I needed a stretch). But since most school districts have declared the death of summer, I suppose its time for our class to get back in session as well.

So far, we've made it up to the Seventh Amendment, which upon first reading is not nearly as sexy as some of the other provisions of the Bill of Rights. As such, its a little harder to write about. The Seventh Amendment reads as follows:

"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."

Boring, right? I know. This is one of those things that we as Americans take for granted. We've enjoyed this freedom for so long that it is hard to imagine life any other way. Trial by jury just seems natural. Imagine a system where one person is the be all and end all of disputes. That much unmitigated power would undoubtedly lead to tyranny.

The founders witnessed real world examples of what happens with unchecked power. King George got rid of trials by juries in the Colonies, which fueled the fire that led to the American Revolution. When the founders wrote the Bill of Rights, they understood how important it was to have a fair court system, so they made sure that the right to have a trial by jury was a fundamental law of the country.

As Thomas Jefferson explained:

"[w]e all know that permanent judges acquire an esprit de corps; that, being known, they are liable to be tempted by bribery; that they are misled by favor, by relationship, by a spirit of party, by a devotion to the executive or legislative; that it is better to leave a cause to the decision of cross and pile (flipping a coin) than to that of a judge biased to one side; and that the opinion of twelve honest jurymen gives still a better hope of right than cross and pile does."

Trial by jury diffuses power. The Seventh Amendment guarantees this right be expanded to civil cases, but only those that are heard in federal court. A civil case does not involve criminal matters; it is a dispute between private parties or between the government and a private party. Without the guarantees established by the Seventh Amendment, the federal government could financially destroy its enemies and squash any opposition through arbitrary court decisions levied by puppet judges.

The right to trial by jury is guaranteed in any civil case in a federal court if the amount of money involved in that case exceeds $20. Right away we can see how dated this provision is. Twenty dollars was a handsome sum when the Constitution was adopted, though now it won't even buy you a cup of coffee in some places (No kidding, a cup of Kopi Luwak costs $90 – the bean is procured from Paradoxurus poop on the Indonesian island of Sumatra).

No power was ever defined to adjust the $20 threshold for inflation. In those days, there was no federal reserve to print money like toilet paper (and make it worth as much). As such, the value of the dollar had been stable since the 17th century, so inflation was never really considered.

In today's reality, Congress has never extended federal diversity jurisdiction to amounts as small as $20 and the amendment is one of the few portions of the Bill of Rights never to have been incorporated by the Supreme Court. Under the current Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (28 U.S.C. §1332), the amount in dispute in diversity cases must exceed $75,000 in order for the case to be heard in federal court.

In addition to the jury requirements, the Seventh Amendment makes it illegal to set up your own court system. If a person goes to court, he/she will always go to a court recognized by the government, whether it be city, country, state or national courts.

The amendment also forbids any court from overturning any factual determinations made by a jury, unless those determinations are clearly wrong. Common law provided that a judge could nullify a verdict, but precluded the judge to personally issue a verdict. In such cases, a new trial with a new jury was the only permissible course of action.

And that just about covers the Seventh Amendment. Hopefully that wasn't too painful, though ironically we'll be discussing cruel and unusual punishment next. In the meantime, feel free to impress your friends with all of your newfound knowledge.