The Right to Trial by Jury Amendment in 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.
Article III & The Sixth Amendment - Right to Trial by Jury
Part of the process that the founders envisioned was the right to a jury trial. 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 in the Seventh Amendment
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 jury trial 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.
Protect Your Right to a Jury Trial – Call 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.