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The Seventh Amendment to the Constitution preserves for litigants a right to a jury trial in actions at law. The right to a jury trial does not attach for equitable actions, but in cases presenting claims for both legal and equitable relief a right to a jury trial exists for common questions of fact. Although many modern statutes and claims did not exist in 1791, the Amendment has been interpreted to require a jury trial of statutory claims seeking monetary damages, the classic form of legal relief, so long as there is a relatively apt analogy between the modern statutory claim and a historical action for damages. A limited rejection of the right to jury trial exists for statutory matters distinct from common law actions and designed to vindicate “public rights” rather than private claims. Historically, courts conducting essentially equitable proceedings possessed some power to resolve disputed facts through a bench trial as part of the effort to “clean-up” resolution of the matter even if the facts decided touch on a legal claim. However, this exception and some of its precedents have been constricted by modern decisions. Applied to the typical securities dispute, the Seventh Amendment ordinarily provides a clear default rule in favor of jury trial upon demand of any party. Consequently, claims under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 would ordinarily be subject to jury trial. Starting at ground zero, investors possess a seventh amendment right to jury trial in claims against their brokers and vice versa. Because the jury trial right in these cases is constitutional, it cannot be abrogated by legislative enactment, executive order, widely held reservations about juries or enthusiasm for alternative dispute resolution. Only actions by the parties, such as a waiver of the right to jury trial or a desire to substitute some other proceeding in lieu of jury trial, can divest a disputant of seventh amendment rights.

Publication Citation

62 Brook. L. Rev. 1380 (1996).