Weakening the 7th Amendment Disguised by ‘Tort Reform’

Current attempts to weaken or dissolve the 7th Amendment to the American Constitution are being hidden under the term “tort reform” in the political arena today. The framers of the Constitution would be appalled that anyone would even imagine trying to weaken the civil jury system.

The 7th Amendment was considered to be an essential right, perhaps even the greatest, when it was included in the Bill of Rights. The founders believed the right to trial by jury is the best way to fight tyranny and corruption. The jury system was viewed as a way to restrict official or arbitrary power and to protect the individual in a court case against political corruption. Sadly, this amazing system has been under attack by many legislatures who want to limit the right to jury trial, and to undermine the jury system through restricted access to the courts. They also want to limit the power and authority of juries.

The 7th Amendment

The text of this Amendment reads as follows:

“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.”

If this important right is circumvented or abolished, the citizen and the country lose a power that the Founding Fathers believed was essential to have. They were fighting against English Law when they created the Bill of Rights, and understood how the civil jury system is beneficial to the legal system in America.

Under Attack

Legislators and others are doing all they can to try to weaken this system in recent years. They are proposing “tort reform” and “caps on damages” as ways to weaken the fundamental purpose of the jury system. Any restrictions on the jury system and jury powers are dangerous to our ability to achieve justice and a fair outcome in the courtroom.

  • Tort Reform – politicians want to enforce award limits as a way to force acceptance of lower awards and as a way to influence a victim to not pursue lawsuits. Some are lobbying for new rules that would force a victim who loses their case to pay all the legal fees of the defendant. If that defendant is a major corporation, like GM, the financial pain on the victim would be crushing.
  • Caps on Damages – this limits compensation awards to injured victims after they win a case. This undermines the fundamental purpose of a jury. Juries determine the amount of awards based on the case evidence and damage to a victim. When caps apply, some cases never get into the courtroom because the costs involved in pursuing the lawsuit are too high. Other cases are stopped prior to court in a pre-trial settlement because that is usually far less costly to defendants than to risk punitive damages and high awards a jury may levy upon them.
  • Restricting access to legal representation by eliminating the contingency fee system. Costs of seeking justice through the court system would become impossibly high, so the victim is thus denied access to an attorney.
  • Contracts containing forced arbitration clauses are another way to side-step jury trials.
  • Health Courts – another way to abolish juries from cases of medical malpractice.
  • Federal bills contain clauses that “preempt” state laws and prevent civil lawsuit filing.

The Indispensable Right

When the American Revolution was fought, the right to a civil jury trial was considered to be a key issue worth fighting over. This is why it was included in the Bill of Rights. This right is just as important today as it was then, but this pressure to make changes to the jury system puts it into the danger zone. By understanding the importance of the right to a jury trial, lawyers can help stop this attack upon the 7th Amendment. Without this right, the legal profession is also at risk. If victims cannot pursue fair compensation without limits, if they cannot utilize the contingency fee system, or they are denied access to a jury trial, the legal system as we know it and as our Founding Fathers created it will also be in jeopardy.

What Can Attorneys Do?

As attorneys, we can be watchdogs over the jury system, on the alert for challenges to the existing system that develop in our states and at the federal level. We can defend this important Amendment against attacks that would weaken or destroy the jury system. Not allowing politicians and others to sneak in wedges that weaken the system is a first line of defense. Publicizing the problem is another way to inform the public and other legal professionals about this danger. Any changes away from what the Founding Fathers created will fundamentally and permanently change our American democracy and destroy one of the most important elements of the Bill of Rights.