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Think Quickly about Your Constitutional Rights. What Comes to Mind?

May 13, 2015

Freedom of Speech?  Freedom of Religion?  Protection from Self-Incrimination?  Due Process of Law?

Among the many freedoms in the Bill of Rights and the Connecticut Constitution is one that often goes unnoticed. It is the right to a jury trial in suits at common law, which includes negligence.

Specifically, the Seventh Amendment provides:

“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.” U.S. Const. amend. VII.

This right is even mentioned in the rationale of the Declaration of Independence, in which the Signatories objected to the rule of King George III – among other reasons with which you may be more familiar – “[f]or depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury . . . .” Declaration of Independence para. 2, cl. 18 (U.S. 1776).

Similarly, Article I, Section 19, of the Connecticut Constitution also places this right at the center of Connecticut liberties: “[t]he right of trial by jury shall remain inviolate . . . “ Conn. Const. art. I, § 19 (1965), amended by Conn. Const. amend. IV (1972)); see also Conn. Const. art. I, § 21 (1818).  Again,  if the right being asserted has its roots in common law, the parties have a right to trial by jury. See Evans v. General Motors Corp., 893 A. 2d 371, 379 (2006).

This is not to say that there are not exceptions to this rule.  For example, the Federal and State Governments are only amenable to suit at all because they have given consent to be sued.  There is not a right to jury trials in those cases. See, e.g., Walker v. Sauvinet, 92 U. S. 90, 92 (1876); Skinner v. Angliker, 211 Conn. 370, 379-82 (1989); see also Conn. Gen. Stat. §4-160(f).

The latest information indicates that between July 1, 2013, and July 1, 2014, there were 69,073 cases that were disposed of.  Of those, only 4,293, or approximately 6.2%, were resolved at trial. Connecticut Judicial Branch, Civil Division – Cases on Docket: July 1, 2013 – June 30, 2014, (last visited April 21, 2015).

As an election year approaches, and it seems that another round of tort reform may loom on the horizon, it is worth reminding ourselves of our essential freedoms – and that among those is the right to a jury trial.

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