I applaud the decision of the Republicans newly in control of the United States House of Representatives to read the entire United States Constitution on the first day of the new Congress. Everyone in government should keep the Constitution firmly in mind.
The commitment of constitutional conservatives’ to our country’s founding principles is widely known. That of course includes the Bill of Rights that was ratified along with the original Constitution, as well as other amendments adopted since that time.
Probably everyone is familiar with some of the key concepts in the Bill of rights, including:
- Free exercise of religion (First Amendment)
- No establishment of religion (First Amendment)
- Freedom of speech (First Amendment)
- Freedom of press (First Amendment)
- Right to peaceably assemble and petition government for redress of grievances (First Amendment)
- Second Amendment: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed"
- Fourth Amendment: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized"
- Right against self-incrimination in criminal case (Fifth Amendment)
- Due process of law (Fifth Amendment)
- No double jeopardy (Fifth Amendment)
- Right to face accuser, impartial jury and assistance of counsel in criminal cases (Sixth Amendment)
- No cruel or unusual punishment, excessive bail or excessive fines (Eighth Amendment)
Equally sacrosanct in our Constitution since 1789 is the Seventh Amendment, which provides:
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.
The right to a trial by jury for civil suits dates back almost 800 years, to the signing of the Magna Carta. Article 39 of the Magna Carta specifically guaranteed the right to a jury trial for civil suits and criminal cases.
Our Founding Fathers also agreed with the importance of a trial by jury. In the words of James Madison, "In suits at common law, trial by jury in civil cases is as essential to secure the liberty of the people as any one of the pre-existent rights of nature."
Other founders were equally adamant about the critical importance of access to civil justice. Thomas Jefferson called civil jury trials, "the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution."
But today, that Seventh Amendment right may well be the most ignored and endangered of those enumerated in the Bill of Rights. After 25 years of propaganda from corporations that seek to avoid accountability for harms caused to ordinary people has threatened to shred the constitutional right to jury trial through a variety of procedural and substantive roadblocks, all at the expense of ordinary American citizens’ Seventh Amendment rights.
I trust that true Constitutional conservatives in Congress will be as enthusiastic about upholding the Seventh Amendment right to jury trial in civil cases as they are about other Constitutional rights.
Ken Shigley is also president-elect of the State Bar of Georgia. He is also author of Georgia Law of Torts: Trial Preparation & Practice and a Certified Civil Trial Advocate of the National Board of Trial Advocacy. He has been listed as a "Super Lawyer" (Atlanta Magazine), among the "Legal Elite" (Georgia Trend Magazine), and in the Bar Register of Preeminent Lawyers. He practices law at the Atlanta law firm of Chambers, Aholt & Rickard, and has broad experience in catastrophic personal injury, spinal cord injury, wrongful death, products liability, brain injury and burn injury cases. This post is subject to our ethical disclaimer.