by Joanne Doroshow //Center for Justice and Democracy at New York Law School
Center for "There are few democratic institutions in America more embattled than the civil justice system. No matter what one thinks of "tort reform," the political term often used to describe laws to weaken this system, one thing is clear: For the last 35 years, questions about the future of civil juries have been dumped on the plate of Congress and every statehouse in America. Many legislatures have been pressured to undermine the civil jury system by restricting access to the courts and limiting juries' power and authority. We are seeing more proposals to limit the right to jury trial than ever before.
If the framers of our Constitution were alive today, they would be appalled by this development. Our nations' founders considered the right to trial by jury in civil cases to be one of our most important rights.
In virtually 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. The right to civil jury trial was a key issue over which the American Revolution was fought. It was so essential to our nation's founders that they preserved it directly in the Bill or Rights as the 7th Amendment. In a 1979 case, U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist explained:
[T]hose who oppose the use of juries in civil trials seem to ignore [that] the founders of our Nation considered the right of trial by jury in civil cases an important bulwark against tyranny and corruption, a safeguard too precious to be left to the whim of the sovereign, or, it might be added, to that of the judiciary.The framers could hardly have imagined that such attacks would still be a problem 223 years after the Amendment was ratified. Unfortunately, many lawmakers in recent times have allowed the civil jury system to be weakened or, in some cases, completely shattered.
A chief function of the jury system is to provide a check on official or arbitrary power. It was the colonists' experience that the civil jury system could be vulnerable to political attacks by those in power.
Consider all the ways this has happened. Many states have enacted "caps on damages," or limits on compensation to injured victims after they have won their case. The determination of damages is one of the jury's most important functions. As the Georgia Supreme Court said in its 2010 decision striking down caps in that state, "the determination of damages rests 'peculiarly within the province of the jury.'" Caps undermine a jury's fundamental purpose. Even worse, they transfer the jury's job to cash-greased politicians, who force courts to apply "one-size-fits-all" limits irrespective of the evidence that a jury sees."
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