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Civil Procedure Fall 2014

Case Note: Byrd

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The Seventh Amendment & the Right to a Jury Trial

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The right to a trial by jury is provided for in the Seventh Amendment:

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“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.”

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However, unlike some of the other provisions of the Bill of Rights, the right does not apply to states through the operation of the Fourteenth Amendment. That said, at the time of its enactment, almost all state constitutions (Louisiana being the notable exception) independently guaranteed such right.

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The Seventh Amendment was clearly integral to the Court’s decision in Byrd, with Justice Brennan writing that “the influence if not the command of the Seventh Amendment” determined the result. What did Justice Brennan mean when he used these words? Why only the “influence”? 

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Balancing State and Federal Policies

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Later cases provide some further insight into how the balancing of state and federal policies mandated by Byrd plays out in practice. For example, in Allstate Ins. Co. v. Charneski, 286 F.2d 238 (7th Cir. 1960), the court reviewed the competing interests before deciding on a declaratory judgment action in an insurance case: 

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“First, as to the State of Wisconsin. This is not a case where a federal declaratory judgment action is filed in a state which has no statute for providing such relief. Wisconsin has passed a general statute providing declaratory relief. However, this statute was held not applicable … [by the relevant state court] because it conflicted with the Wisconsin state policy of providing direct actions against insurance companies. This is a declaration of the substantive law of Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Supreme Court held that to allow declaratory relief in such circumstances would undercut its policy of direct actions against an insurance company and thereby concluding the action—defining the rights of the insurer, the insured, and the injured party—in a single suit. This holding represents a legitimate and proper implementation of Wisconsin policy.”

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“The federal interest to be served here is slight. There is the general interest of a court controlling its own procedure. There is the general policy evidenced by the federal Declaratory Judgments Act. However, no right to jury trial, guaranteed by the Seventh Amendment, in involved here, as in Byrd. The cause of action arising from the accident, the issue of coverage of the policy, and the rights of the insured, the insurer and the injured parties are intimately connected with Wisconsin law and have no connection with the federal government except that the latter provides a fair and orderly forum in which to try the diversity case. Finally, relief under Federal act is expressly discretionary. Such relief is permissive and not absolute. Declaratory relief “may” be granted, and need not be when it would create an unnecessary federal-state conflict.”