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Samuel Bray

What Is the Connection Between Juries and Damages?

A fascinating set of arguments from Justice Samuel Selden of the New York Supreme Court in 1851:

Nature has made some laws, and these it is difficult to repeal. No one can fail to see the relation which exists between trial by jury and compensation in damages for every injury. One is a necessary consequence of the other.

Could a jury adjust the equities and counter equities in a complicated case, and mete out the precise relief which justice might require? There is a moral impossibility in this. What twelve men would ever agree upon the terms of an equity decree?

Equally impracticable would it be for juries to find special verdicts in such cases embracing the details indispensable to be considered in making up the judgment of the court.

The agency of a jury, therefore, in the judicial process, is incompatible with the adaptation of the relief to the special circumstances of the case. Hence, compensation in damages for civil injuries, except in a few cases of proceedings in rem, was the only admissible mode of redress in the common law courts.

For similar reasons, issues to be tried by a jury were required to be single and decisive. Single, because double and complex issues would tend to embarrass and confuse, and lead to disagreement; and decisive, because otherwise no judgment could follow the finding.

Such issues could not be produced without rules adapted to that end. Hence we see the origin of some of the stringent rules of common law pleading.

It is thus, I think, made clear, that the form of trial by jury, the mode of compensation by damages, and the common law rules of pleading, all bore a natural and necessary relation to each other as cause and effect.

Here, then, is cause enough for the existence of the Court of Chancery. Compensation in damages being an utterly inadequate remedy in numerous cases, the prerogatives of the crown, and the principles of Roman jurisprudence were resorted to, for some other mode of redress in such cases. A court with ample equity powers was the result.

Wooden v. Waffle, 1851 WL 5230 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1851).

By the way, Selden's brother Henry Selden was an abolitionist, an attorney, and the person who "defended Susan B. Anthony in her 1873 trial for unlawfully voting as a woman" (per Wikipedia).

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