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Do You Know Your Bill of Rights?

Patrick C. Barry

Most Americans today know that the First Amendment protects free speech and freedom of religion, the Second Amendment protects some level of gun ownership, and the others, like the Fourth and Fifth Amendments, protect other individual rights. Ask many people what the Seventh Amendment does, however, and you might be met with blank stares. It is right there in the middle of our Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to our national Constitution, but the Seventh Amendment often remains overlooked.

The Seventh Amendment protects the American right to a jury trial in civil cases. Its actual text 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 reexamined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

Many state constitutions include similar and even stronger protections. In Rhode Island, whereDecof, Barry, Mega & Quinn, P.C. is based, Section 15 of the state constitution reads as follows:

The right of trial by jury shall remain inviolate. In civil cases the general assembly may fix the size of the petit jury at less than twelve but not less than six.

Our forefathers considered the right to trial by jury, including civil suits for money damages, to be as important as the rights to freedom of expression and religion, and many other fundamental rights.

The Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial is important on two separate levels. First, it protects the personal rights of an individual victim to seek some help from our court system. As important as that individual right is, that is not all the Seventh Amendment protects. The right to a jury trial also enforces a collective right of the American people to a strong and independent third branch of government. Without a decision-making body made of community members, all meaningful policy decisions would be left in the hands of elected officials. By supplying decision-making power over individual disputes directly to our community members, our Constitution ensures that the American people remain directly involved in the governance of our country and conduct. Allowing a jury to decide the “common law” issues regularly raised in civil trials, like motor vehicle and professional negligence, wrongful death and personal injury, ensures that our government remains “of the people, by the people and for the people.”