The Trial Lawyer Summer 2018 - Page 60

HISTORY AND IMPORTANCE OF THE AMERICAN CIVIL JURY TRIAL The civil jury trial has deep roots in our country. The American colonists, governed by English law, believed that trial by jury was a fundamental right, and one necessary to ensure a government by the people, for the people. The right to a jury trial in the administration of justice was considered to be indispensable by our nation’s founders and non-negotiable by the leaders of the American Revolution. They believed that the right to trial by jury could be traced back in an “unbroken line” to chapter 39 of the Magna Carta, issued in 1215, which stated: “No free man shall be taken, outlawed, banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will we proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers and by the law of the land.” England’s repeated attempts to restrict the right to a jury trial in the colonies was a major grievance leading to the Revolutionary War. In nearly every major document and speech delivered before the revolution, the colonists portrayed trial by jury as, if not their greatest right, one that was indispensable. Included in the grievances against King George III listed in the Declaration of Independence was: “[D]epriving us, in many cases, the benefits of trial by jury.” 58 x The Trial Lawyer The only other right eventually included in the Bill of Rights mentioned specifically in the Declaration of Independence was the prohibition against quartering troops. The early state constitutional drafters considered the civil jury trial an important instrument for the protection of individual liberties. The Massachusetts Body of Liberties, enacted in 1641, was the first colonial charter to provide for civil and criminal jury trials by name. By contrast, this same chapter made no mention of free speech rights or freedom of the press, and secured freedom of religion for Christians only. The Bill of Rights in the 1776 Virginia constitution provides that: “[i]n controversies respecting property, and in suits between man and man, the ancient trial by jury is preferable to any other and ought to be held sacred.” The constitution of Pennsylvania followed Virginia’s in affirming the right of trial by jury in civil cases: “[i]n controversies respecting property and in suits between man and man, the parties have a right to trial by jury, which ought to be sacred.” The 1776 constitution of North Carolina stated: “[i]n all controversies at law, respecting property, the ancient mode of trial by jury is one of the best securities of the rights of people, and ought to remain sacred and inviolable.” Similar language is found in the constitutions of Vermont in 1777; Massachusetts in 1780; and New Hampshire in 1784.