Benjamin Franklin

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Why was the right to trial by jury so important to the founding fathers?

America’s founders recognized that trial by jury in both criminal and civil cases offered unparalleled protection for their hard-won freedoms, both individually and collectively. In fact, the right to trial by jury was so important that the founders made it part of the supreme law of the land.  Article III of the U.S. Constitution states: “The Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury.”

Two years before the first musket was fired in America’s War for Independence, a Boston lawyer wrote: “Representative government and trial by jury are the heart and lungs of liberty. Without them we have no other fortification against being ridden like horses, fleeced like sheep, worked like cattle and fed and clothed like swine and hounds.”

Perhaps the lawyer was being overly dramatic in describing the protective power of trial by jury; perhaps not. In any event, that lawyer—a passionate patriot by the name of John Adams—was not alone in his belief that trial by jury was a powerful defense against tyranny.

“I consider trial by jury as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution,” a Virginia lawyer wrote around the same time. His name was Thomas Jefferson.

In June of 1776, delegates of the Virginia Convention adopted a declaration of rights that included the following statement: “…In 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.”

Less than one month later, representatives of all 13 colonies signed the Declaration of Independence, which cited “depriving us in many cases of the right to trial by jury” – a right granted to every British subject by Magna Carta in 1215 – as one of the chief reasons for breaking with the King and Mother England. At the time, Americans accused of crimes against the crown were being held indefinitely on prison ships and/or deported to England to stand trial. Many were never heard from again.

These and other royal abuses of power were front and center when the founding fathers gathered in Philadelphia to draft a national Constitution in 1787. They believed that the combination of an independent judiciary and the right to be tried by a jury of peers would protect Americans from whatever form tyranny might take.

“The friends and adversaries of the plan of the [Constitutional] Convention, if they agree in nothing else, concur at least in the value they set upon the trial by jury; or if there is any difference between them it consists in this: the former regard it as a valuable safeguard to liberty; the latter represent it as the very palladium of free government,” wrote Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist essays describing the proposed new constitution.

So important to them was the right to trial by jury that the founders made it part of the supreme law of the land.  Article III of the U.S. Constitution states: “The Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury.”

In spite of the blanket guarantee, many patriots objected to the vagueness of the provision and its silence on the subject of civil disputes. When the draft of the Constitution was debated, opponents demanded that the jury trial right be spelled out in more detail.

One of the most outspoken proponents of a Bill of Rights was George Mason, the author of Virginia’s Declaration of Rights. In a debate on ratification of the Constitution, he said, “How does your trial by jury stand? In civil cases gone — not sufficiently secured in criminal — this best privilege is gone. But we are told that we need not fear; because those in power, being our representatives, will not abuse the powers we put in their hands. I am not well versed in history, but I will submit to your recollection, whether liberty has been destroyed most often by the licentiousness of the people, or by the tyranny of rulers. I imagine, sir, you will find the balance on the side of tyranny.”

Public opinion so strongly favored a Bill of Rights that the first congress proposed 12 constitutional amendments to the state legislature in 1789. Two of the ten amendments ratified spelled out jury trial rights not specifically described in the articles of the Constitution.  The Sixth Amendment extended the rights of criminal defendants to a speedy and public trial, an impartial jury, the ability to confront adverse witnesses and to the aid of counsel.

The Seventh Amendment extended the right to a jury trial to civil cases. In civil cases, the person bringing the lawsuit (the plaintiff) seeks money damages or a court order preventing the person being sued (the defendant) from engaging in certain conduct. To win, the plaintiff must prove his or her case by “a preponderance of the evidence,” that is by over 50 percent of the proof.

The text of the Seventh Amendment reads: 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 re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

Clearly, our founding fathers recognized the value of trial by jury in both criminal and civil cases offered unparalleled protection for our freedoms, both individually and collectively.  

Justice for all is a beautiful thing. This just wouldn’t be America without it.