Patterson: Trial by jury ensures justice for the people

August 24, 2016
saltsgaver Patterson

Thomas Jefferson is often quoted as having said, “I consider [trial by jury] as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.” Scholars debate the exact origin of the right to jury trial; some trace it back as far as ancient Greece and Rome. What is clear, though, is that the concept of trial by jury was firmly established in England by the 1080s. Richard S. Arnold, “Trial by Jury: The Constitutional Right to a Jury of Twelve in Civil Trials,” 22 Hofstra L. Rev. 1, 5-7 (1993). This right was guaranteed in England as early as 1215 when King John signed the Magna Carta. Since 1791, the right to jury trial in most civil cases in the United States has been guaranteed by the Seventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This guarantee was not unintentional, and the necessity of the right to jury trial should not be understated.

The jury trial in England was seen as a “protector of human liberty.” Id. at 6. This right was engrained in the minds of English colonists and, as they founded the colonies, it was a right they intended to keep and protect. In fact, the jury trial was considered “one of the great palladiums of English liberty” in the newly established colonies. Id. at 13. When the King of England sought to limit this right, the colonies responded by holding a series of congresses in opposition. In enumerating colonies’ grievances against the King, the drafters of The Declaration of Independence included the denial of “the benefits of trial by jury.” It was the denial of this right, along with a list of many others, which led to the Revolutionary War and our nation’s independence.

Although included in proposed versions, the right to a jury was ultimately was not included in the Constitution. Its absence provoked protest and debate. As a result, the guarantee to a jury trial was among the first amendments, indicating its importance to the founders of the U.S. In 1791, the Seventh Amendment was ratified. It 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 reexamined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.” U.S. Const. amend. VII.

The U.S. Supreme Court has not required states to protect the right to a civil jury trial. Minneapolis & S. Louis R. Co. v. Bombolis, 241 U.S. 211 (1916). However, most states have provided these rights in their constitutions. In the 1816 Indiana Constitution, the right to a civil jury trial was to “remain inviolate” when the value in controversy exceeded $20. Ind. Const. of 1816, art. I, § 5. The 1851 Indiana Constitution extended the inviolate right of jury trial by expelling the amount in controversy requirement. Ind. Const. art. I, § 20. The phrase “remain inviolate” has been interpreted as meaning “to continue as it was” or, in other words, the civil right to a jury trial is only available in cases where the action would have been civil at common law. Allen v. Anderson, 57 Ind. 388, 389 (1877). The inclusion and expansion of this right in Indiana’s Constitution is a clear reflection of our state’s intention to emphasize the importance of every Hoosier’s right to make their case in front of a jury of their peers. Protecting this intention as we progress into our state’s bicentennial will become the next step in continuing to ensure that this liberty remains an option in Indiana.

However, we have seen a substantial decline in jury trials over the past several years. Through outside influences that have become pervasive in the world of politics and government, limitations on the power of a jury trial have become abundant. The right to a jury trial is not to be taken lightly. With the limiting powers of movements such as mandatory arbitration clauses, it has become more crucial now than ever to reflect on the fact that the right to a jury trial is more than a formality, but is a constitutional mandate.

The American Board of Trial Advocates “is a national association of experienced trial lawyers and judges dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the civil jury trial right provided by the Seventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.” ABOTA recognizes the invaluable role the jury system plays in connecting the public to the American legal system. Organizations like ABOTA exist for the purpose of preserving and recognizing the importance of the right to trial by jury in an effort to emphasize the importance of remaining grounded in the fundamental rights and processes that the judicial system was built upon.

The right to trial by jury gives ordinary citizens a voice in the democratic process. Moreover, the presence of juries serves as a tool to ensure the judiciary does not overreach and allows judges to remain independent from the parties before the court. At a time in which it is easy to forget the fundamentals due to technology and societal advancement, it has become more crucial than ever to remind those involved in our legal system of the most basic fundamental rights guaranteed to all Americans: the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Allowing citizens to serve a vital role in the administration of their own legal system reaffirms these rights granted to every American.

The function of juries has transformed considerably from its emergence in England to today; however, its protection of human liberty remains the same. As the state of Indiana celebrates its bicentennial year, we should all remember the importance of the right to trial by jury and commit to ensuring that this right remains inviolate.•

Tony Patterson is a partner at Parr Richey Obremskey Frandsen & Patterson and the current president of the Indiana Chapter of ABOTA. He can be reached at tpatterson@parrlaw.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author.