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The 7th Amendment: Definition, Summary & Court Cases

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  • 0:00 Definition of the 7th…
  • 0:35 Application of the 7th…
  • 2:36 Respect for Juries
  • 3:22 Famous Court Cases
  • 4:11 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Stephen Benz

Stephen has taught history, journalism, sociology, and political science courses at multiple levels, including the middle school, high school and college levels.

The 7th amendment is one of the lesser-known amendments, but it established important rules for civil courts and asserts the supremacy of jury decisions. Once you've watched the video, test your understanding with a quiz.

Definition of 7th Amendment

What if you are suing someone in court, and you don't want to have a judge make the decision? According to the 7th Amendment, you have the right to have your trial heard by a jury. The 7th Amendment 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 re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

Application of the 7th Amendment

When does the 7th Amendment apply? There are four criteria for you to be able to have a trial heard by a jury under the 7th Amendment.

  1. Your claim must be a civil claim as opposed to a criminal claim. This essentially means you are seeking money to compensate your loss from the person you are suing.
  2. The claim must be based on federal law and be in a federal court. The 7th Amendment, believe it or not, does not apply in state courts. Some states, however, have adopted the right to a jury in civil cases.
  3. The lawsuit must be more than $20. Interestingly, $20 was a decent amount of money when the Framers wrote the Constitution. Nonetheless, despite the depreciated value of $20, it is still the threshold used to decide if a trial by jury is allowed.
  4. The lawsuit has to be a claim for which the English common law of 1791 would have allowed a jury trial. If the English common law of 1791 would not let your claim go to trial, then it cannot go to trial by jury under the Constitution.

This last rule also limits the type of suits that can go to trial by jury. In U.S. civil courts, there are two types of civil law: common law and equity law. Common law cases occur when a monetary payment is being sought for a loss. Equity law, on the other hand, seeks to remedy a problem by imposing injunctions, or court orders, to solve the problem.

To see this more clearly, imagine if someone stole another person's car. Under common law, the victim could sue the culprit for the loss he incurred. In such a case, there could be a trial by jury according to the 7th Amendment. But, if the victim wanted a court injunction preventing the culprit from coming near his property ever again instead of money, then such a lawsuit would be equity law, and equity law is always tried by a judge.

Thus, any time money is involved, it is a common lawsuit and eligible to be tried by jury, but whenever court injunctions alone are involved, it is an equity lawsuit, and it must be tried by a judge.

Respect for Juries

An important part of the 7th Amendment is that it prohibits judges in any court from overruling a jury's findings unless there was some violation of common law. Therefore, in all but a few cases, a jury's ruling is final.

A jury's decision can be invalidated if it can be shown that a juror was biased. For this reason, a juror is not allowed to communicate with friends, relatives or members of the media about the trial. Such action would be a violation of the 7th Amendment.

Finally, the 7th Amendment specifies that the jury has to be unanimous in civil cases (again, civil means when someone is seeking compensation for a monetary loss). The 6th Amendment, on the other hand, notes that in criminal cases, unanimous decisions are not necessary except in cases where the person receives the death penalty.

Famous Court Cases

Let's take a look at a couple court cases where the 7th Amendment came into play:

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