by Jay Marshall Wolman
There is an interesting financial quirk in the Bill of Rights. The Seventh Amendment states:
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.
As some of you may know, the Bill of Rights does not automatically apply to the States; particular clauses are individually held to be incorporated into the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment. This is why, until only recently, the 2nd Amendment was not deemed to restrict a State’s ability to regulate firearms. See McDonald v. Chicago, 561 U.S. 742 130 S. Ct. 3020, 177 L. Ed. 2d 894 (2010). In fact, nearly 100 years ago, the 7th Amendment was held not to apply to the States. See Minneapolis & St. Louis R. Co. v. Bombolis, 241 U.S. 211, 36 S. Ct. 595, 60 L. Ed. 961 (1916).
This past August, the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals explicitly rejected a ruling by the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico incorporating the 7th Amendment. See González-Oyarzun v. Caribbean City Builders, Inc., 798 F.3d 26 (1st Cir. 2015). González-Oyarzun involved a claim under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act matter; suit was filed in Federal court, but the employer sought to enforce a forum selection clause requiring it be brought in Commonwealth courts. However, Puerto Rican Commonwealth courts do not enjoy a right to a jury trial in civil disputes, causing the Federal Court to pass on the constitutionality. The First Circuit disagreed with the District Court based largely on stare decisis and disagreed with the interpretation as to whether McDonald opened the door for the 7th Amendment. Unfortunately, it does not appear that there was a petition for a writ of certiorari or request for en banc rehearing filed and the time for both has expired.
The District Court decision gave considerable discussion to the Twenty Dollar clause and its impact on small claims cases. It was troubled by the fact that such a low threshold for a jury demand undermined the efficiency and policies behind a state small claims court. [Federally, all claims under Federal law in excess of $20 are tried to a jury; claims in diversity are subject to a $75,000 jurisdictional requirement and are unaffected by the clause.] However, I believe the clause has been misread.
Twenty dollars today is not the same as twenty dollars on Dec. 15, 1791, when the amendment was ratified. The Coinage Act of 1792 memorialized the definition of the dollar as understood at the time and used since independence:
DOLLARS OR UNITS–each to be of the value of a Spanish milled dollar as the same is now current, and to contain three hundred and twenty-one grains and four sixteenth parts of a grain of pure, or four hundred and sixteen grains of standard silver.
Fiat money was not introduced until much later. Thus, I would suggest that $20 in the 7th Amendment is not $20 today, nor is it what an inflation calculator might suggest (which, according to this site is about $275 in today’s money). Instead, it should be equal to 20 * 321.25 grains of pure silver, which is 6,425 grains of pure silver.
As of the time of writing, the value of $20, being equal to 6,425 grains of pure silver, at the time of the 7th Amendment, would have a market value of $188.20 according to this site. [Under the record high for silver, on Jan. 18, 1980, it would be $661.91. More recently, on Sept. 2, 2011, it was $575.84.] In the last 12 months, it has hovered around $200. Likely, then, a State could still approximate it at $200 and require non-jury small claims cases below that threshold.
Of course, then, this calls into question the filing fees for traditional jury claims, which typically well exceed $200. But that barrier is for another day.