by E. Sebastian Arduengo
Plenty of media attention has been justifiably focused on constitutional rights, such as due process and the individual right to bear arms. The Second Amendment has been discussed in the context of debate over compromise gun safety measures in the U.S. Senate and due process concerns were raised by some human rights groups over the federal government’s questioning of the Boston Marathon bombings suspect.
But one needs to do some digging to find some discussion of the Seventh Amendment, which guarantees the right to jury trials in civil cases. And while it may not appear all that important, and some have even argued that juries needlessly increase the time and cost of taking cases to court, the Seventh Amendment actually ensures some democratic accountability in our courts by ensuring that citizens have a say in administering justice. So, over time, what started as a way to ensure that judges appointed by the King were not overly partial to the Crown, became a way for citizens to hold corporations accountable for wanton wrongdoing.
So, it was heartening that U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) recently brought some much-needed attention to the Amendment in a speech at the William & Mary Law School, because over the last quarter-century the Supreme Court and Congress have been working together to slowly chip away at our right to a jury trial in civil cases to the point where it’s almost meaningless through a mix of well-intentioned legislation and blatantly pro-business rulings.