Essay: Of Rights Lost and Rights Found: The Coming Restoration of the Right to a Jury Trial in Minnesota Civil Commitment Proceedings

C. Peter Erlinder, William Mitchell College of Law


The article examines the reasoning of the Minnesota Supreme Court in Pearson, and In re Vinstad v. State Board of Control, which was cited as authority for the Pearson opinion and is the only other case that has addressed this issue, although in dicta. The article shows how Pearson was wrongly decided because it purports to eliminate a jury trial right that existed in the Minnesota Territory and was guaranteed by the 1857 Minnesota Constitution. This article concludes that, irrespective of language in Pearson to the contrary, the Minnesota Constitutional right to a jury trial in civil commitment cases remains viable even today, and that thousands of persons have been, and are being, unconstitutionally deprived of their liberty in juryless civil commitment proceedings in Minnesota. The first section of this article briefly traces the right to a jury trial from its roots in the Magna Carta and the Common Law of England. The jury was considered a necessary "bulwark" against government whenever loss of liberty was at issue in both criminal and civil proceedings, up to the adoption of the Seventh Amendment in 1791. The next section of the article reviews the Minnesota Supreme Court civil jury jurisprudence from 1860 to the present. It shows that, for more than 140 years, the Minnesota Supreme Court has consistently held that the right to a jury that existed in the Minnesota Territory was part of the 1857 Constitution, and that this constitutional right to a jury trial cannot be altered by the Legislature or the courts. The article then reviews the right to a jury in civil commitment proceedings in the Minnesota Territory by showing that the Territorial Probate Court, which had original jurisdiction over civil commitment proceedings, included the right to a jury.