In Nationwide Biweekly Administration, Inc. v. Superior Court, the Supreme Court today holds defendants have no statutory or state constitutional right to a jury trial when the government seeks civil penalties under California’s unfair competition or false advertising laws.  The court’s opinion by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye explains that the state constitution (the federal constitution’s civil jury trial right doesn’t apply to the states) requires trial by jury of only legal — as opposed to equitable — causes of action that were tried to a jury in 1850, when the state constitution was adopted.  It also concludes that “the gist of a civil action under the UCL and FAL is equitable rather than legal in nature.”

The court factually distinguishes the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Tull v. United States (1987) 481 U.S. 412, which interpreted the federal constitutional jury trial guarantee in a somewhat similar context.  However, besides distinguishing the case, the court states, “In California, the constitutional right to a civil jury trial under the California Constitution is entirely independent of the federal constitutional civil jury trial right . . . , and past California cases have not hesitated to decline to follow the federal interpretation . . . when the federal interpretation has been found inconsistent with a proper reading of the California provision.”

Justice Leondra Kruger (joined by Justices Goodwin Liu and Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar) separately concurs, agreeing with the majority’s bottom line, but taking “a somewhat different — and narrower — path.”  Justice Kruger finds “the majority comes up short in its effort to show that FAL claims implicate inherently equitable judgment uniquely suited to a court,” but she nonetheless concludes, “in the end, the equitable facets of this action predominate over the legal ones.”

The court reverses the First District, Division One, Court of Appeal, which had disagreed with earlier Court of Appeal opinions.