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Historical Background

Jury trials were introduced in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in 1628, because King James of England declared that certain crimes in the colonies were to be tried before juries. In early civil trials, the parties could choose, by mutual consent, a jury or court trial. Criminal defendants could also choose a jury or court trial. By the late 1600s, several colonies were holding jury trials, but jury trials were unavailable to many citizens.

During the revolutionary period, many documents noted the importance of jury trials. The colonists feared that they could not get a fair trial before a judge who usually was appointed by the king or his representatives. The First CONTINENTAL CONGRESS declared, in 1774, that the colonists were entitled to the "great and inestimable privilege of being tried by their peers of the vicinage." The 1775 Declaration of Causes and Necessities and Taking Up Arms specifically noted the deprivation of jury trials as a justification for forcibly resisting English rule. The Declaration of Independence noted that many colonists were not permitted jury trials.

The constitution of Virginia, which is considered the first written constitution of modern republican government, contained a bill of rights providing for a jury of 12 and a unanimous verdict in criminal cases, and trial by jury in civil cases. After several other states adopted similar provisions in their constitutions, the U.S. Constitution was drafted to require trial by jury in criminal cases. Although the Constitution did not provide for jury trials in civil cases, the first Congress incorporated trial by jury in civil cases into the Bill of Rights. Since that time, trial by jury has become universal in the courts of the United States, although juries are not used in all cases.

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