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In my city (Lansing, Michigan), and apparently in many other cities, you are not allowed trial by jury for traffic violations. This seems to be in direct contradiction to the 7th amendment. Is there a reason for this? Is it unconstitutional?

7

The Seventh Amendment's jury trial provision does not apply to the states. The Bill of Rights does not inherently restrain the states at all, merely the federal government. The Fourteenth Amendment does restrain the states; notably, it forbids a state from depriving any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. Courts have read into "of law" the added requirement that the law be compatible with the fundamental rights that are implicit in the concept of ordered liberty; this means that most stuff that would violate the Bill of Rights if done by the feds violates due process if done by the states. However, not all provisions of the Bill of Rights have been incorporated (i.e. applied to the states); the requirement for a jury in a civil trial is one of the few that hasn't been incorporated, because courts do not consider it a fundamental right (merely one protected in the federal courts).

Now, many traffic tickets are actually misdemeanor offenses, and a jury-trial requirement for crimes is incorporated. However, even for federal offenses, the courts have generally found that the Constitution doesn't require jury trial for petty crimes (those with a maximum sentence under 6 months).

3

This is the text of the Seventh Amendment:

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.

"Suits at common law" means (for our purposes) "lawsuits." In other words, the Seventh Amendment applies to civil cases. Traffic tickets are criminal cases, so the Seventh Amendment does not apply to them at all.

  • This is a civil case in my understanding. That's why it's called a "civil infraction". courts.mi.gov/self-help/center/casetype/pages/infraction.aspx – MarsOneRover Apr 13 '16 at 5:42
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    @MarsOneRover: You'll notice that that website has a separate page for civil lawsuits. A case is criminal if the government is the plaintiff. They use the term "civil infraction" to mean that jailtime is not a possible outcome; traffic tickets are still criminal matters, technically speaking. – Kevin Apr 13 '16 at 6:19
  • Also, Wikipedia suggests that "twenty dollars" is not interpreted literally, and that the lower limit today is (in some situations) more like $75,000. So unless you have a really serious traffic ticket... – Nate Eldredge Jul 10 '17 at 5:49
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    @NateEldredge The $75,000 threshold is a limit for diversity cases in federal court, not for a jury trial in case cases. You have a right to a jury trial in all civil cases at law in federal court as the courts choose not to invoke the $20 threshold for administrative reasons. Today $20 as of 1791 when the 7th Amendment was enacted is worth about $500-$1000. But, there is no occasion to test if there can be an inflation adjustment as the courts have not utilized the option to limit jury trials in that manner. – ohwilleke Jul 10 '17 at 17:22
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    @Kevin There is no dollar threshold, however, in federal question cases. You a bring a lawsuit for a violation of a federal law or in a suit involving a federal party (e.g. an unpaid U.S. Department of Education student loan balance) for $12 if you want. – ohwilleke Jul 10 '17 at 19:11

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