Summary judgment is cited as a significant reason for the dramatic decline in the number of jury trials in civil cases in federal court. Judges extensively use the device to clear the federal docket of cases deemed meritless. Recent scholarship even has called for the mandatory use of summary judgment prior to settlement. While other scholars question the use of summary judgment in certain types of cases (for example, civil rights cases), all scholars and judges assume away a critical question: whether summary judgment is constitutional. The conventional wisdom is that the Supreme Court settled the issue a century ago in Fidelity & Deposit Co. v. United States. But a review of that case reveals that the conventional wisdom is wrong: the constitutionality of summary judgment has never been resolved by the Supreme Court. This Essay is the first to examine the question and takes the seemingly heretical position that summary judgment is unconstitutional. The question is governed by the Seventh Amendment which provides that “[i]n Suits at common law, . . . the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.” The Supreme Court has held that “common law” in the Seventh Amendment refers to the English common law in 1791. This Essay demonstrates that no procedure similar to summary judgment existed under the English common law and also reveals that summary judgment violates the core principles, or “substance,” of the English common law. The Essay concludes that, despite the uniform acceptance of the device, summary judgment is unconstitutional. The Essay then responds to likely objections, including that the federal courts cannot function properly without summary judgment. By describing the burden that the procedure of summary judgment imposes upon litigants and the courts, the Essay argues that summary judgment is not necessary to the judicial system but rather, by contrast, imposes significant costs upon the system.
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