The Right to a Jury Trial Under the Constitution
The Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution includes the first ten amendments,
which were enacted to protect the personal freedoms of people by specifying
what the government can and cannot do. The rights that the Constitution
guarantees to individuals are essential for securing a just and peaceful society.
Among those rights are those afforded to people accused of crimes. Because
the consequences of being convicted of a crime involve the deprivation
of a person’s freedom, property, and even life in extreme cases,
the Framers of the Constitution wanted to make sure that the state followed
a strict process to determine the accused’s guilt before taking
away their freedom.
Part of the process that the founders envisioned was trial by jury. This
concept is mentioned in
Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution, and also the
Sixth Amendment, which provides that “[t]he trial of all crimes, except in cases
of impeachment, shall be by jury; and such trial shall be held in the
state where the said crimes shall have been committed…”
Furthermore, the Sixth Amendment reads as follows:
“In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right
to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district
wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have
been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and
cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him;
to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to
have the assistance of counsel for his defense.”
The right to a jury trial is not limited to criminal cases. Under the
Seventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, jury trials are guaranteed for certain civil lawsuits:
“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 reexamined in any court of the
United States, than according to the rules of the common law.”
Beyond the U.S. Constitution—which was originally limited to the
federal government—each state created its own constitution which
generally mirrored the U.S. Constitution in substance. For example,
Article I, Section 16 of the California Constitution provides that:
“Trial by jury is an inviolate right and shall be secured to all,
but in a civil cause three-fourths of the jury may render a verdict. A
jury may be waived in a criminal cause by the consent of both parties
expressed in open court by the defendant and the defendant’s counsel.
In a civil cause a jury may be waived by the consent of the parties expressed
as prescribed by statute.
In civil causes the jury shall consist of 12 persons or a lesser number
agreed on by the parties in open court. In civil causes other than causes
within the appellate jurisdiction of the court of appeal the Legislature
may provide that the jury shall consist of eight persons or a lesser number
agreed on by the parties in open court.
In criminal actions in which a felony is charged, the jury shall consist
of 12 persons. In criminal actions in which a misdemeanor is charged,
the jury shall consist of 12 persons or a lesser number agreed on by the
parties in open court.”
When Do You Not Have a Right to a Jury
If the constitutions of the United States and the several states in the
union essentially guarantee a trial by jury for “all criminal cases,”
then those of you who have ever contested a speeding ticket may be wondering
“why wasn’t a jury empaneled for my traffic violation?”
Courts have interpreted the Sixth Amendment to apply only to those offenses
that the people living when the U.S. Constitution was created understand
to be “crimes” for which juries were typically empaneled.
Judges and constitutional scholars have pointed out that not all offenses
against the state were tried before a jury. As a result, the term “all
crimes” as mentioned in the U.S. Constitution refers to
crimes punishable by a prison term exceeding six months.
Therefore, there are many crimes for which the constitutions of the U.S.
and its states do not guarantee a trial by jury.
Further, people are not guaranteed a jury trial in all civil cases. Notably,
most states—except for Texas—do not try divorces and other
family law proceedings before a jury. Courts have interpreted the Seventh
Amendment as applicable to only those lawsuits “at common law.”
The leading interpretation of the Seventh Amendment is also couched in
the context of what was going on in the late 18th Century when the Constitution was formed.
As a result, only those lawsuits that common law courts recognized as necessitating
a jury are guaranteed one today under the Seventh Amendment. Thus, new
civil causes of action that arise from statutes don’t have a jury
trial, unless the statute explicitly provides for one.
Get Quality Legal Counsel from Hanson, Gorian, Bradford & Hanich
When you encounter serious legal problems, such as being convicted of a
crime, the ideal course of action for you is to hire a dedicated attorney
who will zealously advocate for your interests. At Hanson, Gorian, Bradford
& Hanich, we have experience with various aspects of the law, including
criminal defense matters.
For a consultation concerning your legal rights and interests, please call
our office at (951) 687-6003 or
contact us online today.