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 use of the term
common law in the Amendment to indicate those cases in which the right to jury trial was to be preserved reflected, of course, the division of the English and United States legal systems into separate law and equity jurisdictions, in which actions cognizable in courts of law generally were triable to a jury whereas in equity there was no right to a jury. In the federal court system there were unitary courts having jurisdiction in both law and equity, but distinct law and equity procedures, including the use or nonuse of the jury. Adoption of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure in 1938 merged law and equity into a single civil jurisdiction and established uniform rules of procedure. Legal and equitable claims which previously had to be brought as separate causes of action on different
sides of the court could now be joined in a single action, and in some instances, such as compulsory counterclaims, had to be joined in one action. 1 But the traditional distinction between law and equity for purposes of determining when there was a constitutional right to trial by jury remained and led to some difficulty. 2
This difficulty has been resolved by stressing the fundamental nature of the jury trial right and protecting it against diminution through resort to equitable principles. In Beacon Theatres v. Westover, 3 the Court held that a district court erred in trying all issues itself in an action in which the plaintiff sought a declaratory judgment and an injunction barring the defendant from instituting an antitrust action against it, and the defendant had filed a counterclaim alleging violation of the antitrust laws and asking for treble damages. It did not matter, the Court ruled, that the equitable claims had been filed first and the law counterclaims involved allegations common to the equitable claims. Subsequent jury trial of these issues would probably be precluded by collateral estoppel, hence
only under the most imperative circumstances which in view of the flexible procedures of the Federal Rules we cannot now anticipate, can the right to a jury trial of legal issues be lost through prior determination of equitable claims. 4 Then, in Dairy Queen v. Wood, 5 in which the plaintiff sought several types of relief, including an injunction and an accounting for money damages, the Court held that, even though the claim for legal relief was incidental to the equitable relief sought, the Seventh Amendment required that the issues pertaining to that legal relief be tried before a jury, because the primary rights being adjudicated were legal in character. Thus, the rule that emerged was that legal claims must be tried before equitable ones and before a jury if the litigant so wished. 6
In Ross v. Bernhard, 7 the Court further held that the right to a jury trial depends on the nature of the issue to be tried rather than the procedural framework in which it is raised. The case involved a stockholder derivative action, 8 which has always been considered to be a suit in equity. The Court agreed that the action was equitable but asserted that it involved two separable claims. The first, the stockholder’s standing to sue for a corporation, is an equitable issue; the second, the corporation’s claim asserted by the stockholder, may be either equitable or legal. Because the 1938 merger of law and equity in the federal courts eliminated any procedural obstacles to transferring jurisdiction to the law side once the equitable issue of standing was decided, the Court continued, if the corporation’s claim being asserted by the stockholder was legal in nature, it should be heard on the law side and before a jury. 9 Whether this analysis will be followed in other areas so that the right to a jury trial extends to all legal issues in actions formerly within equity’s concurrent jurisdiction is a question now open. 10