Religious freedom and the right to bear arms, both guaranteed by the Constitution in the 1st and 2nd Amendments respectively, are hot topics in political and legal circles lately. Yet no one really gets all that worked up over the 7th Amendment. It’s probably safe to say that some people don’t even know what it covers. Supporters of the 1st and 2nd Amendments should know though, because it may be the key to preserving those rights.
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. [7th Amendment]
I can hear the question: “How does this simple paragraph preserve my right to religious freedom and gun ownership?”
The answer is as short and sweet as the 7th Amendment itself. Putting aside the issue of dollar values, the purpose of this amendment is the protection of civil rights. While the Founders wanted the States to have the last word regarding governmental issues, they wanted to ensure that the people had the final say in cases dealing with individual citizens’ rights.
The 7th Amendment provides the right to a jury in civil trials held in federal court. This is the key provision as regards the protection of individuals’ rights, such as those outlined in the 1st and 2nd Amendments. It allows us to have cases involving these fundamental rights decided by our peers and delineates the responsibilities of judge and jury.
It’s necessary that the people decide these issues. While we all know that judges are supposed to be apolitical, the reality is different. Certainly, judges rule based on the law, but their personal political beliefs can color their interpretation of the law. This is especially true for appointed judges, who owe their benches to a given political figure.
A jury of our peers will also have their own set of political, religious and other strong beliefs. However, due to the way the jury system operates, it is much more likely that the issue at hand is decided in a less biased manner. The 7th Amendment makes the judge an advisor in such situations. The judge’s job is to provide jury instructions, decide the permissibility of evidence, and clear up questions of law for the jury.
When citizens file suit in federal court challenging what they perceive as limitations on their civil rights, as has happened in cases of religious speech in the classroom and gun control legislation, the matters are being decided by the people, not partisan judges. This is precisely why the 7th Amendment and its guarantees is so important in preserving the fundamental freedoms we enjoy under not only the 1st and 2nd Amendments, but the entire Bill of Rights.
When we, the people, have a stronger voice in protecting our civil liberties, they are less likely to be trampled upon by a central government. This is in keeping with the Founders’ original intent. Yet, some of the most vocal proponents of our 1st and 2nd Amendment rights are among those who are pushing for limitations on the 7th Amendment’s guarantees.
Caps on jury awarded damages and limits on compensation to injured parties who are victorious in their cases are two ways that lawmakers are whittling away our 7th Amendment rights. Access to the courts is being limited by government-imposed schedules on contingency fees, making these cases financially impossible for some attorneys to take. The result is that economically disadvantaged citizens are denied their day in court because they can’t afford representation.
There are even lobbyists who would prefer the “English Rule” be put into place in our legal system. This rule was created by the upper classes that used it to limit lower class citizens’ access to the legal system. This rule requires that, for example, in a case against a drug manufacturer, if the injured party loses, he/she is must pay the big pharm company’s legal expenses.
What all of these (knowingly or not) anti-7th Amendment folks don’t realize is that they’re damaging the one means by which they’re treasured 1st and 2nd Amendment rights can most easily be protected. In effect, they are shooting themselves in the foot.
Don’t feel too badly for them though, if they’re successful they won’t have the guns they need to do it for much longer.