When it comes to jury trials in federal court cases, Article III of the Constitution is succinct and clear: “The Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury,” and that trials must take place within the state where the crime was committed. Although the Antifederalists could find no fault with the brevity or clarity of this clause, they denounced it for being woefully inadequate. In fact, many were outraged by the way that the new Constitution allegedly undermined jury trials in federal courts. They accused the Framers of, if not secretly and deliberately plotting to do away with jury trials in many important instances, then at least possessing a reckless indifference to this venerable institution. It is no accident that three of the amendments in the Bill of Rights sought to buttress the right to a jury trial (the right of grand juries in the 5th Amendment; the right to an “impartial” jury derived from “the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed” in the 6th Amendment; and jury trials for civil cases in the 7th Amendment). For Americans in the eighteenth century, given their experience in the late colonial period under Britain, having judicial decisions depend upon jurors who were drawn from the citizenry was almost as important as forming a legislature that would be popularly elected. They would brook no Constitution that seemed to trifle with this keystone of free government.
There is certainly no truth to the suggestion that anyone at the Convention was secretly conniving to undermine the guarantees for jury trials in federal courts. The Framers were unwilling to descend into particulars about the precise mode in which juries would be assembled or to enumerate all the cases in which they would be required because different states had different requirements regarding juries, making it impossible to find a uniform rule that would satisfy everyone. They hoped instead that the Constitution could safely trust Congress to work out the individual rules and the specific requirements for jury trials. And if the Framers were complacent about juries, it was not because they thought them unimportant; on the contrary, they believed that their importance was so obvious that they did not need prolonged and minute guarantees about them in the Constitution.
However, the accusations of the Antifederalists, and even some friends of the Constitution, convinced the First Congress that greater specificity would have to be added immediately, both in the Judiciary Act of 1789 and within a bill of rights that would be incorporated into the Constitution itself.
The value of jury trials was so obvious, in fact, that no one made any explicit motion to guarantee them until the Committee of Detail made its report on August 6. The members of this committee had inserted a provision for the first time that would require that “the trial of all criminal offences (except in cases of impeachment) shall be in the state where they shall be committed; and shall be by jury.” That provision was passed unanimously and without debate on August 28. The delegates merely added a clause that provided for those circumstances when a federal crime was “not committed within any state, then the trial shall be at such place or places as the legislature may direct.” Thus, without debate or apparent deliberation, the Framers provided for jury trials in federal criminal cases, and they did so in a way that they must have believed would satisfy the most jealous guardian of individual rights.
On September 12, however, Hugh Williamson pointed out “that no provision was yet made for juries in civil cases, and suggested the necessity of it.” By this time, however, less than a week before the end of the Convention, the delegates were reluctant to entertain any new proposals that might slow down their race to the finish line.
The Framers’ decision to punt on this question produced embarrassments of its own. Among Mason’s list of grievances against the Constitution, he included the absence of any guarantee for “the trial by jury in civil causes.” Several Antifederalists took up the same battle cry during the ratifying debates, and they also decried the possibility that juries might be drawn from some place other than the “vicinage,” or neighborhood, of the crime. Finally, opponents to the Constitution wanted to be assured that indictments would be procured by a grand jury, in order to protect the rights of the accused from an overzealous federal prosecutor. The Federalists were not indifferent to these protections; rather, they had believed that niceties such as these could be sufficiently settled by Congress. The reaction of many opponents to the Constitution convinced the nation otherwise. Consequently, not only did the First Congress address many of these concerns in the Judiciary Act of 1789, but amendments were also added to the Constitution which supplemented the sparse provisions in Article III for jury trials in federal cases.