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There is no right to a jury trial in termination of parental rights cases

On Behalf of | Sep 4, 2015 | Family Law |

The constitutional right to a jury trial does not apply to all cases

Most people know that there is a federal constitutional right to a jury trial. This right universally applies to all criminal cases, and most civil cases like personal injury, contract disputes, and so forth. However, the appellate courts (including the US Supreme Court) have ruled that the general federal right to a trial by one’s peers was not intended by the founders to apply to certain cases. Even in ancient English common law, from which our legal system derived, there were many types of cases where the right to a jury trial did not exist.

Termination cases are an exception to the general rule

Among the modern exceptions to the general rule requiring juries are cases involving the termination of parental rights by the state due to abuse or neglect of a child. There are some states where a right to trial by jury in termination cases is granted by state statute or a state constitutional provision. But the US Supreme Court has held that there is no federal constitutional right to a jury trial in cases brought by the state to terminate parental rights due to abuse or neglect. In Washington State and most other states, there is no right to a jury trial when the state files a case to terminate parental rights due to abuse or neglect of a child.

There is no right to a jury trial in termination cases

There is a good Wikipedia article online captioned “Jury Trial”. In that article the following quote appears: “In most US states, there is no right to a jury trial in family law actions not involving a termination of parental rights, such as divorce and custody modifications.” Like it or not, that’s the law in most states.

The Seventh Amendment: Federal right to jury trial

The 7th Amendment to the US Constitution 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.” “The Constitution of the United States of America”. Gpoaccess.gov. http://www.gpoaccess.gov/constitution/html/ amdt7.html. “[The 7th Amendment] is a most important and valuable amendment; and places upon the high ground of constitutional right the inestimable privilege of a trial by jury in civil cases, a privilege scarcely inferior to that in criminal cases, which is conceded by all to be essential to political and civil liberty.” Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States.

The right to a jury trial is not guaranteed in all cases in the US

The 7th Amendment does not guarantee the right to a jury trial in all cases. Instead, it attempts to preserve the right to jury trial which existed in 1791 in England at common law. In England in 1791, civil actions were divided into actions “at law” (which had a right to a jury trial) and actions in equity (which did not). Federal Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 2 says “[t]here is one form of action – the civil action[,]” which abolishes the at-law/equity distinction. Nevertheless it still remains true in America that in cases which would have been “at law” in 1791, there is a right to a jury; in cases that would have been “in equity” in 1791, there is no right to a jury.

Which cases are “at law” and which are “cases in equity”?

To determine whether any given case will be considered “at law” or in equity in America today, one must first determine whether such an action was considered “legal” or “equitable” in England in 1791. English suits for monetary damages were purely a legal remedy, and thus entitled to a jury. Non-monetary remedies such as injunctions, mandamus, rescission, and specific performance were all equitable remedies, and thus tried by a judge, not a jury. In Beacon Theaters v. Westover, 359 U.S. 500 (1959), the U.S. Supreme Court discussed the right to a jury, holding that when both equitable and legal claims are brought, the right to a jury trial still exists for the legal claim.

Which state cases are tried to juries?

Although there is no United States constitutional right under the 7th Amendment to a jury trial in state courts, every state except Louisiana permits jury trials in civil cases in state court on the same basis as allowed in federal court under the 7th Amendment. The federal constitutional right to a jury trial in state civil cases does extend to parties when a state court is enforcing a federally created right, of which the right to trial by jury is a substantial part. “CRS/LII Annotated Constitution Seventh Amendment”. Law.cornell.edu.http://www.law.cornell.edu/anncon/html/ amdt7frag1_user.html. But as a general rule, equity cases in the US are tried to judges, not juries.


This Blog is provided for general educational purposes only. By using or participating in this site you agree and understand that there is no attorney client relationship between you and the attorney who wrote this Blog, and no attorney-client confidentiality. The law changes frequently, and varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. The information provided in this Guide is general in nature and may not apply to the factual circumstances described in your question. The applicable law and the appropriate advice may be different in the State or States where the relevant facts occurred. For definitive legal advice you should independently consult an attorney who (1) is licensed to practice in the state which has jurisdiction; (2) has experience in the area of law you are asking about, and (3) has been retained as your attorney for representation or consultation. Your comment to this Legal Guide may be used for promotional or educational purposes.(C) Bruce Clement