The seventh amendment to the United States Constitution requires that the right to a jury trial in civil lawsuits “shall be preserved”. 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 re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.
Despite the clear and unequivocal language preserving the right to jury trial, this right has been significantly diminished by the summary judgment procedure in federal court.
The summary judgment procedure allows a federal trial judge to eliminate a jury trial in a civil lawsuit. Instead of a jury trial, the federal trial judge renders judgment by concluding that a reasonable jury would only rule consistent with the judge’s ruling, and therefore, no jury trial is necessary. This summary judgment process is frequently used in federal court and has been the source of vehement ridicule among legal scholars.
Most legal scholars that have addressed this issue take the position that the summary judgment process is an unconstitutional violation of the seventh amendment. The United States Supreme Court, however, has held that the summary judgment procedure is not an unconstitutional violation of the seventh amendment.
This article takes the position that the seventh amendment requires an inherent checks and balances system that is eviscerated by the summary judgment procedure. This is due in large part to the fact that the very branch of government that violates the seventh amendment’s checks and balances system is the same branch of government that the seventh amendment was designed to check and balance. Plainly stated, the seventh amendment intended that the requirement of a jury trial would allow members of the local community, jurors, to be a check and balance against the power of federal district judges. It is this nullification of the checks and balances system by the federal district court judges that produces the greatest harm to our constitutional structure.
Protecting the checks and balances required by the seventh amendment does not require a decree that the summary judgment process is unconstitutional. But it does require creating a process by which the local community is allowed to fulfill its role as a check and balance against federal district court judges. In order to restore the seventh amendment protections to civil trials, the local community must be allowed to participate in the summary judgment process.
The solution is to restore the check and balance by adding a civil jury review of a judge’s order granting summary judgment. The civil jury review of the judge’s summary judgment order could be accomplished in a similar procedure to the grand jury used in criminal cases. It could be called a Summary Jury and it could occur during any criminal or civil jury term. The review process could occur by allowing the plaintiff and defendant attorneys an opportunity to orally argue to the jury their positions as to whether the federal judge’s decision granting summary judgment should be upheld. The summary jury would then render a unanimous verdict in support of the decision, which would uphold the decision. Anything less than a unanimous verdict in support of the decision would be a reversal of the court’s summary judgment decision.
If this process were employed, it would restore the checks and balances to the seventh amendment, while allowing for a procedure for the court to single out and address frivolous lawsuits. It would wrest from the judiciary the unfettered right to deny the community the opportunity to not only to serve on a jury, but to attend and participate in the process as members of the community.
The only way to protect the seventh amendment is to create in the summary judgment process, the checks and balances required by the seventh amendment. The citizens of the community must be allowed to serve on a jury in some capacity during the summary judgment process, and to perform the constitutional function of acting as a check and balance on the federal district court judges in a civil trial.