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 coverage of the Amendment is
limited to rights and remedies peculiarly legal in their nature, and such as it was proper to assert in courts of law and by the appropriate modes and proceedings of courts of law. 1 The term
common law was used in contradistinction to suits in which equitable rights alone were recognized at the time of the framing of the Amendment and equitable remedies were administered. 2 Illustrative of the Court’s course of decision on this subject are two unanimous decisions holding that civil juries were required, one in a suit by a landlord to recover possession of real property from a tenant allegedly behind on rent, the other in a suit for damages for alleged racial discrimination in the rental of housing in violation of federal law. In the former case, the Court reasoned that its Seventh Amendment precedents
require[d] trial by jury in actions unheard of at common law, provided that the action involves rights and remedies of the sort traditionally enforced in an action at law, rather than in an action at equity or admiralty. 3 The statutory cause of action, the Court found, had several counterparts in the common law, all of which involved a right to trial by jury. In the latter case, the plaintiff had argued that the Amendment was inapplicable to new causes of action created by congressional action, but the Court disagreed.
The Seventh Amendment does apply to actions enforcing statutory rights, and requires a jury trial upon demand, if the statute creates legal rights and remedies, enforceable in an action for damages in the ordinary courts of law. 4
Omission of provision for a jury has been upheld in a number of other cases on the ground that the suit in question was not a suit at common law within the meaning of the Amendment, or that the issues raised were not peculiarly legal in their nature. 5 Where there is no direct historical antecedent dating to the adoption of the amendment, the court may also consider whether existing precedent and the sound administration of justice favor resolution by judges or juries. 6
The amendment does not apply to cases in admiralty and maritime jurisdiction, in which the trial is by a court without a jury, 7 nor does it reach statutory proceedings unknown to the common law, such as an application to a court of equity to enforce an order of an administrative body. 8 Thus, when Congress committed to administrative determination the finding of a violation of the Occupational Safety and Health Act with the discretion to fix a fine for a violation, the charged party being able to obtain judicial review of the administrative proceeding in a federal court of appeal and the fine being collectible in a suit in federal court, the argument that the absence of a jury trial in the process for a charged party violated the Seventh Amendment was unanimously rejected.
At least in cases in which ‘public rights’ are being litigated – e.g., cases in which the government sues in its sovereign capacity to enforce public rights created by statutes within the power of Congress to enact – the Seventh Amendment does not prohibit Congress from assigning the factfinding function and initial adjudication to an administrative forum with which the jury would be incompatible. 9
On the other hand, if Congress assigns such cases to Article III courts, a jury may be required. In Tull v. United States, 10 the Court ruled that the Amendment requires trial by jury in civil actions to determine liability for civil penalties under the Clean Water Act, but not to assess the amount of penalty. The penal nature of the Clean Water Act’s civil penalty remedy distinguishes it from restitution-based remedies available in equity courts, and therefore makes it a remedy of the type that could be imposed only by courts of law. 11 However, a jury need not invariably determine the remedy in a trial in which it must determine liability. Because the Court viewed assessment of the amount of penalty as involving neither the
substance nor a
fundamental element of a common-law right to trial by jury, it held permissible the Act’s assignment of that task to the trial judge.
Later, the Court relied on a broadened concept of
public rights to define the limits of congressional power to assign causes of action to tribunals in which jury trials are unavailable. In Granfinanciera, S.A. v. Nordberg, 12 the Court declared that Congress
lacks the power to strip parties contesting matters of private right of their constitutional right to a trial by jury. The Seventh Amendment test, the Court indicated, is the same as the Article III test for whether Congress may assign adjudication of a claim to a non-Article III tribunal. 13 As a general matter,
public rights involve
‘the relationship between the government and persons subject to its authority,’ whereas
private rights relate to
‘the liability of one individual to another.’ 14 Although finding room for
some debate, the Court determined that a bankruptcy trustee’s right to recover for a fraudulent conveyance
is more accurately characterized as a private rather than a public right, at least when the defendant had not submitted a claim against the bankruptcy estate. 15