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Tull v. United States

Citation: 17 ELR 20667
No. No. 85-1259, 481 U.S. 412/25 ERC 1857/(U.S., 04/28/1987) Rev'd

The Supreme Court holds that the Seventh Amendment guarantees a jury trial to determine liability in actions by the federal government seeking civil penalties and injunctive relief under the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (FWPCA), but the judge must determine the amount of the penalty. Appellant had been found liable by a district court judge sitting without a jury, for filling wetlands on the island of Chincoteague, Virginia, without a permit. Noting that the FWPCA and its legislative history are silent on whether Congress intended a jury trial in civil suits, the Court observes that its prior cases interpreting the Seventh Amendment require a jury trial in actions analogous to suits at common law but not in actions analogous to 18th-century cases tried in courts of equity or admiralty.

The Court holds that suits for civil penalties are analogous to actions in debt within the jurisdiction of English courts of law. The Court distinguishes such suits from actions to abate a public nuisance — although the FWPCA's subject matter resembles a public nuisance action in addition to resembling an action in debt, the relief sought is more important in determining the right to a jury trial.

The Court next holds that a civil penalty was a type of remedy at common law that could only be enforced in courts of law. The FWPCA civil penalty provision makes clear that in setting the penalty retribution and deterrence are to be considered, in addition to restitution. The Court notes that actions for FWPCA civil penalties are not incidental to actions for FWPCA injunctive relief, and that the two remedies are distinct under the Act. If a legal claim is joined with an equitable claim in the same lawsuit, the right to a jury trial on the legal claim, including all issues common to both claims, remains intact.

The Court holds that the FWPCA's legislative history indicates that Congress intended that the actual calculation of the amount of the civil penalty, after liability is found, be made by a judge. The Seventh Amendment and the little evidence of the framers' intent provide no evidence that the right to jury trial extends to the remedy phase of a civil trial. The Seventh Amendment preserves beyond the legislature's reach only those incidents of the jury trial system which are fundamental to it. The amount of civil penalty is not such a fundamental incident, and Congress was free to fix the penalty itself or delegate that determination to trial judges.

In a separate opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, Justice Scalia, joined by Justice Stevens, would find that the right to trial by jury attaches to the entire civil penalty proceeding, including both the determination of liability and the assessment of penalty.

[The opinion by the Fourth Circuit is at 15 ELR 21061.]

Counsel for Petitioner
Richard R. Nageotte
Nageotte, Borinsky & Zelnick
14908 Jefferson Davis Hwy., Woodbridge VA 22191
(703) 643-2202

Counsel for Respondent
Lawrence G. Wallace, Deputy Solicitor General
Office of the Solicitor General
Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
(202) 633-2211