The Supreme Court recently ruled to safeguard civil rights — but no one’s talking about it 

Over the course of the last few weeks, there has been much talk in legal and political circles about the implications of the Supreme Court opinion on Securities and Exchange Commission v. George Jarkesy. Somehow, though, the positive bearings it will have on racial justice and civil rights in America seem to have gotten lost in the conversation. 

The details of Jarkesy, which involved the SEC alleging fraud from a private actor, are as irrelevant to the conversation presented in this column as they were to the court’s opinion. In choosing to take on this matter, the Supreme Court primarily concerned itself with one thing: can the SEC (or any government agency, for that matter) issue civil penalties without a jury trial? 

Citing the Seventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provides the U.S. citizenry with the right to a trial by jury , the Supreme Court answered in the negative. Borrowing verbiage from a previous case (Dimick v. Schiedt ), the decision stated that “the right to trial by jury is ‘of such importance and occupies so firm a place in our history and jurisprudence that any seeming curtailment of the right’ has always been and ‘should be scrutinized with the utmost care.’” 

Indeed. Without the Seventh Amendment, the civil rights movement would have never materialized. 

Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which overturned the “separate but equal doctrine,” in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, wasn’t a traditional jury trial; it came about because multiple African American plaintiffs brought jury trial suits in lower courts and succeeded. Moreover, in Meredith v. Fair (1962), various jury trials allowed African American student James Meredith to reverse discriminatory decisions, ultimately allowing him to receive admission to study at the University of Mississippi. To this day, juries continue to advance civil rights, especially in cases involving voting rights and housing discrimination. 

When laws are unjust, judges tend to play “by the book,” ruling consistent with existing precedent. Historically, juries have done the opposite. As too many African American families have discovered on criminal justice-related matters, many judges also defer to prosecutors in criminal trials rather than serve as an important check on the U.S. institutions and branches of government. The Supreme Court did the right thing by protecting the role of juries in the U.S. judicial system. 

The impact of the Supreme Court issuing this pro-Seventh Amendment opinion will extend far beyond limiting the SEC’s authority, because the SEC is not the only agency that utilizes in-house quasi-courts, which feature administrative law judges who are hired by and work directly with the agency in question to unilaterally arbitrate right from wrong. 

The most prominent among them is the Federal Trade Commission, which has become infamous for using these tribunals to advance its policy aims. Over the last several years, the judicial branch has largely taken care of this concern by siding against the FTC on nearly every case it has brought before the courts. Now, with the Supreme Court reaffirming the need for a jury trial in Jarkesy, there is now little chance of a Seventh Amendment violation ever slipping through the cracks in this post-consumer welfare standard environment. 

All told, Chicago-Kent School of Law Professor Harold Krent surmises that over 25 federal agencies will find their powers more constrained by this opinion. And former Justice Department official Barry Hartman said they will all be forced to be extra careful because acting in a manner that is inconsistent with Jarkesy could create a “tsunami of litigation.” 

Good. Because recent comments made by certain presidential candidates and their surrogates raise the specter that, without additional safeguards imposed on the Seventh Amendment, a change in White House leadership could dramatically affect voting rights , existing worker discrimination cases and countless other racial justice issues.  

Jarkesy created the much-needed safeguards this nation needed. It will ensure such a rollback will not happen — and for that, we should all be grateful. 

Ronald J. Stephens is professor of African American Studies in the School of Interdisciplinary Studies at Purdue University 

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