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The Ill Health of Our Bill of Rights

The National Archives in Washington, D.C., holds our Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. The plain meaning of their written words clearly communicates their intent, but does the text correspond with their influence in the law today? The print on the documents has greatly faded over the years, so some portions are barely visible. Do the faded words correlate with a choice by those in power to ignore them out of convenience, as though their concepts are similarly faded?

When one looks objectively at the proposed laws filed by the Florida legislature in the 2013 session, it must be asked: is the right to trial by jury in civil cases still recognized, or has it now become obsolete? The right to a jury trial in a civil case is mandated by the 7th Amendment and is a cornerstone of American democracy. Thomas Jefferson said, "I consider (trial by jury) as the only anchor... by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution." Yet, that notion seems to have been forgotten by those in power today.

Consider some of the bills introduced by our legislators. Two of these bills advanced requirements for arbitration, meaning that the outcome of a case is decided – not by a jury of one's peers – but by three professional arbitrators. Another bill weakened the Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act, requiring that crooked car dealers be given "notice" by victims of their alleged deceptive practices, as though the crooks didn't know what they were doing. Dealers could then give back their ill-gotten profits without penalty.

A final example is restrictions on the power of juries to impose punitive damages against nursing homes that allow abuse or neglect of their residents. Unless all of us are committed to having our rights determined by a jury, the impact of our 7th Amendment rights will fade as surely as our Constitution's old print has done.


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