The Right to Trial by Jury

Trial by jury is the inherent and invaluable right of every American.
— The Stamp Act Congress (1765)

As the Center for Study of Responsive Law says, “The civil jury system is a hallmark of democracy
and an important safeguard of freedom. Civil juries have been called the conscience of the community. They stand as indispensable watchdogs over corporate negligence and corruption. Juries are the one arena where average citizens can participate directly in government, where they can have a direct impact on events and ultimately the state of their lives. The consensus among judges, lawyers and jurors themselves is that the system works extremely well. ”

The right to trial by jury is one of our foremost rights as Americans. The Center for Justice and Democracy has a great factsheet on how this came to be.

The Massachusetts Body of Liberties in 1641, was the first colonial charter to provide for civil and criminal jury trials by name – before securing the rights of free speech or press. In England at the time, the Court would regularly punish jurors for bringing the “wrong” verdict, but in the US, a 1670 indictment against William Penn for illegal speech and assembly (he was found not guilty) spurred the end of this practice.

Civil trial by jury even at the start of our country was considered one of our most vital rights. State Constitutions in the colonies beginning in 1776 contained language securing the right of civil trial by jury. The North Carolina Constitution’s language, for example, was: “[I]n all controversies at law, respecting property, the ancient mode of trial by jury is one of the best securities of the rights of the people, and ought to remain sacred and inviolable.” (emphasis added)

In addition, the lack of language in the original Constitution securing the right to civil trial by jury (as well as the other rights enumerated later in the Bill of Rights) nearly defeated the Constitution. The right to a civil jury trial was added in 1791 as the 7th Amendment.


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