The Volokh Conspiracy

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Equity, law, and the Seventh Amendment


The Seventh Amendment civil jury trial right is complicated. Originalists and non-originalists alike tend to see the text as requiring a historical inquiry, because the right is "preserved" in "suits at common law." But how should that inquiry be done? My article Equity, Law, and the Seventh Amendment has just been published by the Texas Law Review, and you can read it here.

Here's the abstract:

The Seventh Amendment requires that the civil jury trial right be "preserved" in "Suits at common law." Those bits of constitutional text have long set the justices on a path of historical reconstruction. For roughly two centuries, the Supreme Court has determined the scope of the civil jury trial right in federal court by reference to historic English courts. But no one is happy with the current test. In one widely used variant, it requires an inquiry into analogous 1791 actions, followed by an inquiry into the legal or equitable provenance of the remedy sought, and then a weighing that favors the second of these two incommensurable inquiries. The test is anachronistic and internally incoherent, and it leads to anomalous results.

This Article critiques the current approach and offers a new test for the scope of the Seventh Amendment civil jury trial right. This test would presume a civil jury trial right, but with three categorical exceptions. One exception is for areas of substantive law developed exclusively in equity, another is for remedies developed in equity, and the third is for case-aggregating devices developed in equity (e.g., the class action). The historical inquiry that is required would be somewhat stylized. But it is more manageable than the current approach, and it would allow judges to determine the scope of the civil jury trial right with greater predictability and accuracy.