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.
In 1913, in Slocum v. New York Life Ins. Co., 1 the Court held that a federal appeals court lacked authority to order the entry of a judgment contrary to the verdict in a case in which the federal trial court should have directed a verdict for one party, but the jury had found for the other party contrary to the evidence; the only course open to either court was to order a new trial. Although plainly in accordance with the common law as it stood in 1791, the five-to-four decision was subjected to a heavy barrage of professional criticism based on convenience and urging recognition of capacity for growth in the common law. 2 Slocum was then impaired, if not completely undermined, by subsequent holdings. 3
In the first of these cases, the Court held that a trial court had the right to enter a judgment for the plaintiff on the verdict of the jury after having reserved decision on a motion by the defendant for dismissal on the ground of insufficient evidence. 4 The Court distinguished Slocum and noted that its ruling qualified some of its assertions in Slocum. 5 In the second case 6 the Court sustained a United States district court in rejecting the defendant’s motion for dismissal and in peremptorily directing a verdict for the plaintiff. The Supreme Court held that there was ample evidence to support the verdict and that the trial court, in following Arkansas procedure in the diversity action, had acted consistently with the Federal Conformity Act. 7 In the third case, 8 which involved an action against the government for benefits under a war risk insurance policy that had been allowed to lapse, the trial court directed a verdict for the government on the ground of the insufficiency of the evidence, and was sustained in so doing by both the appeals court and the Supreme Court. Justice Black, joined by Justices Douglas and Murphy asserted in dissent,
Today’s decision marks a continuation of the gradual process of judicial erosion which in one-hundred-fifty years has slowly worn away a major portion of the essential guarantee of the Seventh Amendment. 9 That the Court should experience occasional difficulty in harmonizing the idea of preserving the historic common law covering the relations of judge and jury with the notion of a developing common law is not surprising. 10
Appeals From State Courts to the Supreme Court
The clause of the Amendment prohibiting the re-examination of any fact found by a jury is not restricted in its application to suits at common law tried before juries in courts of the United States. It applies equally to cases tried before a jury in a state court and brought to the Supreme Court on appeal. 11 The Court has indicated frequently, however, that, in cases involving a claim of a denial of constitutional rights, it is free to examine and review the evidence upon which the lower court based its conclusions, a position that under some circumstances could conflict with the principle of jury autonomy. 12