The Seventh Amendment provides that ” [i]n Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved… Accordingly, we must conclude that the Seventh Amendment provides a right to a jury trial where the copyright owner elects to recover statutory damages… The right to a jury trial includes the right to have a jury determine the amount of statutory damages, if any, awarded to the copyright owner. It has long been recognized that “by the law the jury are judges of the damages.” Lord Townshend v. Hughes, 2 Mod. 150, 151, 86 Eng. Rep. 994, 994-995 (C.P. 1677). Thus in Dimick v. Schiedt, 293 U.S. 474, 55 S.Ct. 296, 79 L.Ed. 603 (1935), the Court stated that “the common law rule as it existed at the time of the adoption of the Constitution” was that “in cases where the amount of damages was uncertain[,] their assessment was a matter so peculiarly within the province of the jury that the Court should not alter it.”
So wrote Justice Clarence Thomas in his opinion for a unanimous Supreme Court, when it ruled in a 1998 copyright infringement case that the Seventh Amendment requires the right to a jury trial where the copyright owner elects to recover statutory damages. In Feltner v. Columbia Pictures Television, Inc., the Court overruled the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which had affirmed a district court’s ruling denying Feltner’s motion for a jury trial. Justice Thomas’ opinion included a discussion of the applicability of the Seventh Amendment to copyright infringement cases and, in effect, a terrific defense of the right to a civil jury trial and the role of local juries. Justice Thomas noted that even before adoption of the Constitution, in England and in the American colonies, “copyright suits for monetary damages were tried in courts of law, and thus before juries.” And he wrote that the Copyright Act of 1790 didn’t change that practice.
Ironically, the attorney asserting Mr. Feltner’s Seventh Amendment rights was John Roberts, now the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and during oral argument before the Court, he eloquently noted the historical role and significance of civil jury rights enumerated under the Seventh Amendment:
In light of clear historical practice on both sides of the Atlantic prior to 1971, Feltner had a right under the Seventh Amendment to have a jury make that finding and others on which the award was based and determine the amount of damages to be imposed within the statutory limits.
The idea that… when Congress fixes the amount of the penalty it can therefore delegate that task to judges ignores the whole purpose of the Seventh Amendment.
The Seventh Amendment is to protect against judicial bias and corruption and overreaching and, while that’s not implicated when Congress fixes the amount because Congress is doing that, the judge is just applying it, when you give that task to the judge the whole reason for having the Seventh Amendment comes into play…
As someone who has criticized the Roberts Court for decisions denying civil jury trials in a number of preemption and arbitration cases, I was surprised to learn of this defense of the Seventh Amendment by Justice Thomas. My thanks to Bob Peck of the Center for Constitutional Litigation in Washington for pointing it out. Now if only the Roberts Court would only take a realistic view of the practical and harmful impacts of federal preemption and forced arbitration clauses on our right to a civil jury trial.