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Understanding the importance of the jury in civil trials, Part 1

As we move into 2017, the political landscape across the country remains in turmoil. Last year experienced a tumultuous campaign that people on both sides of the aisle agree highlighted that a strong partisan rift exists in America. In fact, in naming "The Person of the Year" in 2016, the cover of Time Magazine indentified the country as the "Divided States Of America." It is no secret that partisan politics are often driven by special interests. The courts, on the other hand, are supposed to mete out justice without regard to partisan politics, special interest pressures and government oppression.

A Jury Is The Voice Of The Local Community In Serving Justice

Before our country was founded, the colonists in North America were governed under the law of England without representation in the British Parliament. Most people are familiar with the story of the Boston Tea Party as a protest against taxation without representation. However, the roots of the jury in America in certain civil cases are also tied to the lack of representation in parliament. Cases at law in the colonies involved a jury of peers who decided the facts according to local customs and understanding of the law - standing between the power of the King and the colonists.

The main text of the U.S. Constitution lacked any provision to protect the right to a jury in civil and criminal cases. The right to a jury is recognized as a driving force behind the Bill of Rights. The Seventh Amendment was created to specifically protect jury trial rights in civil cases at law, and further clarify that "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."

State Constitutions, including in both Minnesota and Wisconsin, also provide constitutional protection for the right to have a jury decide facts in certain civil disputes. In many ways, the guarantees embodied in the bills of rights under state constitutions provide greater protections than the U.S. Constitution. United States Supreme Court Chief Justice William J. Brennan is remembered for his recognition of the importance of state constitutional rights in serving human dignity and providing a platform to guarantee the full realization of liberty. The right of access to state or federal courts to seek a true remedy for injury, as well as the right to have a jury participate in the nonpartisan court process, are fundamental rights in maintaining individual liberties.

Applying Common Sense To Individual Facts

While most civil disputes, including serious personal injury, medical malpractice and wrongful death cases, may not directly implicate government action or negligence, the civil jury trial right serves many vital functions in preserving freedom, democracy and justice. Ordinary citizens are given the opportunity to determine the unique facts of the individual case and apply common sense based upon local community standards and expectations. In the next post we will discuss the importance of a non-partisan jury in 21st century justice and the separation of powers that underscore the danger of legislative or executive branch interference with the independence of the jury system.

Sources: National Constitutional Center, "Amendment VII, Jury Trial in Civil Lawsuits," last accessed 12/29/2016; The National Judicial College, "Why Jury Trials are Important to a Democratic Society," last accessed 12/29/2016.

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