The right to a civil jury trial is a cornerstone of the American legal system. The Maine Constitution promises an even broader right to a civil jury trial than is offered by the federal Constitution and many other states. Article I, Section 20 states: “In all civil suits, and in all controversies concerning property, the parties shall have a right to a trial by jury, except in cases where it has heretofore been otherwise practiced.” The exception in the provision has been the subject of multiple interpretations by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, sitting as the Law Court, since the ratification of the Maine Constitution in 1820. This has resulted in inconsistency in Maine case law, as well as a significant shift in the right to a civil jury trial over time. After almost 100 years of interpreting Article I, Section 20 in a manner consistent with its text, the Law Court made an about-face in 1983, applying a dichotomous interpretation and narrowing the jury trial right protected by the Maine Constitution in State v. Anton. Reasoning that no civil suit at common law would have been comparable to the proceeding in question, the court in Anton concluded that there is no right to a jury trial in traffic infraction proceedings. The court applied this erroneous interpretation for several years, substituting the well-settled interpretation of the Seventh Amendment of the federal Constitution for an independent, proper interpretation of Article I, Section 20. In 1987, the Law Court abruptly reversed course in City of Portland v. DePaolo, holding that the defendant had a right to a jury trial in an action involving violation of the City of Portland’s anti-pornography ordinance, a cause of action that did not exist at common law. With minimal analysis or explanation, the court corrected its prior interpretation of the provision, broadening the right to a civil jury trial under Maine law and reclaiming the power of the Maine Constitution in determining the legal rights of Maine citizens. This Comment will discuss the evolution of the right to a civil jury trial in the state of Maine based on the court’s shifting interpretation of Article I, Section 20.
Carolyn A. Liegner,
A Modern Look at the Right to a Civil Jury Trial Under the Maine Constitution,
Me. L. Rev.
Available at: http://digitalcommons.mainelaw.maine.edu/mlr/vol69/iss1/6