April 15th, 2020

It Won’t Happen to Me

David Lat, via ABC News

When I was a puppy lawyer I learned a truth that’s come up time and again when trying cases: Jurors, for the most part, don’t think that the bad incident would have happened to them.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a car crash or medical malpractice. Somehow, someway, people want to believe they are different. The victim must have somehow been vulnerable or at fault.

And then the same issue popped up with COVID-19.

Before going on to an interview with David Lat on this subject, I want to reinforce something: I’m no different. I’m scheduled to turn 60 next week — I may cancel due to the virus, and stay 59 for another year — and figured that the virus probably wouldn’t make me ill. Despite being in the original east coast containment zone.

Why? I’ve been a distance runner for almost 30 years and run a bunch of marathons and have, I think, a pretty good set of lungs. And healthy lungs are important, we’ve been told, in fighting off the virus.

It was with this mindset that I read this op-ed in the New York Times featuring an interview with Lat, who recently spent six days intubated due to COVID and emerged to tell his story in many forums.

But this particular telling of the story, on the op-ed pages of the New York Times (The One Kind Of Distancing We Can’t Afford) grabbed me differently than others. It was about the way folks wanted to psychologically distance themselves from Lat.

They wanted to be different from him. To prove to themselves that they were not at the same risk.

The op-ed writer, Jennifer Senior, reacted the same way I did — and many of you likely are, after finding two of her doctor/nurse friends saw a 50-year-old woman die from COVID:

I, too, am a 50-year-old woman. As I listened to their stories, I had to stifle the same unlovely impulse. “But did your patients have a pre-existing condition?” I wanted to ask. “Were they fighting cancer, were they smokers, were they already floridly unwell?”

Nobody, but nobody, wants to believe they are at risk. We are all smarter than average.

Ms. Senior sets up the background regarding Lat, writing:

For Exhibit A, look no further than the Twitter account of David Lat, the 44-year-old lawyer, legal recruiter and founding editor of Above The Law, an immensely popular blog. Lat was diagnosed with Covid-19 in mid-March, and he’s tweeted about it ever since, save for the chilling stretch during which he was on a ventilator. When he returned, he posted a thread exploring the reasons some people die from Covid-19 while others suffer not at all.

This part is well known by many, as he first appeared in New York’s legal press and has since made numerous national appearances.

But the reactions of others to him is what really jumped off the page at me, for it went directly to something I’d known for decades about jurors when trying cases, yet never appreciated in myself:

He was suddenly pelted with queries about his own health. People were subtly probing to see whether there was a hidden reason he’d fallen ill.

It appears that Lat’s own friends were acting the same way as many jurors, which is to say, they were acting as humans subconsciously worried about self-preservation. They were looking for the reason that they would not have the same bad luck that Lat had. They were different. They had to be.

Lat went to say:

“Maybe I’m reading too much into things,” he replied, “but I received a number of responses that seemed to latch on excitedly to the mention of my exercise-induced asthma.”

And yet, he was exceptionally active, likely far, far more so than the average person. By orders of magnitude:

That he ran two New York City Marathons with this asthma in his 30s — and did high-intensity interval training three times a week until he fell ill — didn’t move a number of his followers. (The bluntest response: “Asthma is still asthma, waiting to knock you out, and any severe respiratory illness reveals the fundamental weakness of your lungs.”) Nor did the fact that Lat was healthy in every respect: normal blood pressure, normal weight, didn’t smoke, barely drank.

We all want to be different than that other poor fellow who was hit by the car or the victim of malpractice. We want it badly. But we aren’t.

There probably isn’t much we can do about that, as I think this is fundamental to human nature, and something I learned about others many years back.

But the least we can do is recognize it in ourselves.

 

March 12th, 2020

The End of Jury Trials Due to Coronavirus

It’s coming like a wave: The end of jury trials due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Jurors don’t want to show up in crowded places, judges don’t want them there, and none of them are to be blamed.

Suspended:

Houston (Harris County) – all civil trials

Michigan – all civil and some criminal trials: The Michigan Supreme Court has recommended that all civil jury trials in the state, as well as all criminal jury trials where the defendant is not in custody, be adjourned due to concerns about the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic

US District of Connecticut:

All civil and criminal (grand and petit) jury selections and jury trials scheduled to commence now through April 10, 2020 before any district or magistrate judge in any courthouse in the District of Connecticut 

This will become a deluge.

Previously: How New York Courts Should React to the Coronavirus

Update: A friend emails me that he is picking a jury in on of the New York counties, that they are jammed into a small room, that two of the potential jurors are doctors, and that this was a “complete disaster” waiting to happen:

we had two doctors on our panel yesterday – one was at Lenox hill in the city and the other at Elmhurst – they both told us privately that bringing in jurors to central jury and then up to the rooms for jury trials defies every warning given so far by the government or health care providers and in their professional opinions it is a complete disaster. 

Update 2: The Southern District of New York will suspend jury trials (and naturalization ceremonies) set to start next week, as per the NY Post.

Update 3: Maryland – “All civil and criminal jury trials in the Circuit Courts throughout the state of Maryland scheduled to begin on March 16, 2020, through April 3, 2020, shall be suspended on an emergency basis”

Update 4: New Jersey: “Effective immediately, the Judiciary is suspending jury service for new trials,”

I’m going to stop with the updates, as of Friday morning 3/13, as it would be a full time job to keep up with the deluge to come.

 

December 5th, 2019

Jury Nullification and the Trump Impeachment

We have criminal trials. We have civil trials. And we have, rarely, impeachment trials.

Today Mark Bower explores the concept of jury nullification in the context of jurors doing whatever they hell they feel like, regardless of the law. I explored jury nullification once before, albeit it briefly, many years ago.

This fuller discussion comes in the wake of news of President Trump wooing Congressmen and Senators with Camp David visits and special lunches.

———————-

A primer on jury nullification:

The United States Constitution guarantees a trial by jury to all persons accused of a crime. That jury is comprised of average citizens from all walks of life with no special training or skills to serve other than being a U.S. citizen who is at least 18 years old, residing in the judicial  district for a set period of time (typically one year), being proficient in English, having no disqualifying mental or physical conditions, and (in most states) not having a pending or previous felony conviction. In fact, more than 32 million people are called for jury service every year, according to the National Center for State Courts.

Serving on a jury is a hallmark of our justice system and a cornerstone of democracy. But did you know that, unlike judges, juries historically have been able to ignore the law in order to achieve justice in individual cases that involve unjust rules or their unjust application? This is known as jury nullification. Below, you will find a discussion of jury nullification, including how it’s defined, its legality, examples, and how this applies to the impeachment of Trump.

Jury Nullification Defined:

Jury nullification might sound like a convoluted concept in an already confusing legal system, but the idea is actually quite simple. It happens when a jury returns a verdict of Not Guilty despite its belief that the defendant is guilty of the violation charged. Why would a jury do this? Don’t jurors swear an oath to uphold the law? Yes, but oftentimes it is a tool juries can use to set aside a law they believe is immoral or wrongly applied to the accused.

For example, in the 1800s the government passed stringent fugitive slave laws that compelled citizens of all states to assist law enforcement with the apprehension of suspected runaway slaves. Known as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the law included large fines for anyone who aided a slave in an escape, even by simply giving the person food or shelter.

Northerners used the jury box to voice their protest by refusing to convict in these cases and thereby “nullifying” the law on moral grounds. A mirror-image may be found in the countless acquittals in the South of whites charged with lynching black men, regardless of clear guilt-in-fact. In other cases, juries nullified prohibition era laws and drug laws that they disagreed with. Put crudely but accurately, the jurors rejected the charges based on personal beliefs that the laws were wrongheaded.

Jury nullification also exists in civil cases but is relatively uncommented-on. Every trial lawyer knows that cases may be won or lost based on intangibles, such as the likeability or unlikeability of the client, that has nothing to do with the merits of the case. A jury nullification advocacy group estimates that 3–4% of all jury trials involve nullification. A recent rise in hung juries is seen by some as being indirect evidence that juries have begun to consider the validity or fairness of the laws themselves.

Legality of Jury Nullification:

Jury nullification is legal according to the U.S. Supreme Court, but whether or not juries may be instructed on this right is a different matter. Although the power of jury nullification exists, lawyers are generally prohibited from urging a jury to disregard the law. Although no precedent revokes the power of nullification, courts have since the 19th century tended to restrain juries from considering it, and to insist on their deference to court-given law.

The 1895 decision in Sparf v. United States written by Justice John Marshall Harlan, held that a trial judge has no responsibility to inform the jury of the right to nullify laws. It was a 5–4 decision. This decision, often cited, has led to a common practice by United States judges to penalize anyone who attempts to present legal argument to jurors and to declare a mistrial if such argument has been presented to them. In some states, jurors are likely to be struck from the panel during voir dire if they will not agree to accept as correct the rulings and instructions of the law as provided by the judge.

A 1969 Fourth Circuit decision, U.S. v. Moylan, affirmed the power of jury nullification, but also upheld the power of the court to refuse to permit an instruction to the jury to this effect:

“We recognize, as appellants urge, the undisputed power of the jury to acquit, even if its verdict is contrary to the law as given by the judge, and contrary to the evidence. This is a power that must exist as long as we adhere to the general verdict in criminal cases, for the courts cannot search the minds of the jurors to find the basis upon which they judge. If the jury feels that the law under which the defendant is accused, is unjust, or that exigent circumstances justified the actions of the accused, or for any reason which appeals to their logic or passion, the jury has the power to acquit, and the courts must abide by that decision.”

Nevertheless, in upholding the refusal to permit the jury to be so instructed, the Court held that:

“…by clearly stating to the jury that they may disregard the law, telling them that they may decide according to their prejudices or consciences (for there is no check to ensure that the judgment is based upon conscience rather than prejudice), we would indeed be negating the rule of law in favor of the rule of lawlessness. This should not be allowed.”

The right to disregard the law if one disagrees with it on moral grounds, also comes from the fact that jurors cannot be punished for the verdict they render, no matter how unpopular it is to the general public or the specific judge presiding over the case. Also, defendants found not guilty, cannot be retried for the same crime, that would violate the double jeopardy concept.

Hence, once a jury finds a defendant not guilty, there is no mechanism for a prosecutor to bring the case against the same defendant again. (See: Bushel’s Case, from the 1670 trial of William Penn.)

Several cases that were speculated to be instances of jury nullification included the prosecution of Washington, D.C.’s former mayor, Marion Barry; the trial of Lorena Bobbitt; the prosecution of the police officers accused of beating Rodney King; the prosecution of two men charged with beating Reginald Denny in the resulting riots; the trial of the surviving Branch Davidian members; the trial of the Menendez brothers for the murder of their parents; and perhaps most famously, the O. J. Simpson murder trial. In the days preceding Jack Kevorkian’s trial for assisted suicide in Michigan, Kevorkian’s lawyer, Geoffrey Fieger, told the press that he would urge the jury to disregard the law. Prosecutors prevailed upon the judge to enter a pretrial order banning any mention of nullification during the trial, but Fieger’s statements had already been extensively reported in the media.

In a 1998 article, Vanderbilt University Law Professor Nancy J. King wrote that “recent Looking to the Clinton impeachment trial for guidance on the Chief Justice’s role has been unsatisfying. C.J. William Rehnquist’s low-key role is remembered mainly for two minor things: (1) His decision to adorn his black robe with glittering gold stripes – an idea lifted from Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Iolanthe;” and (2) his ruling preventing the Senators from being referred to as “jurors”. It is not likely that C.J. John Roberts will get much precedent from Rehnquist’s presiding over the Clinton impeachment.

Will the Trump Impeachment Call for Nullification?

As of this writing, the Trump defense strategy has essentially been to contend that Trump’s pressuring Ukraine to “dig up dirt” on the Bidens, while perhaps unappealing, is too minor a transgression to rise to the “high crimes and misdemeanors” standard for impeachment. So far as I know, no legal commentator has yet called this “jury nullification.”

But conceptually, this is every bit as much “jury nullification” as northern jurors refusing to convict those who helped slaves escape bondage because of their revulsion to slavery, or Southern jurors refusing to convict lynchers. And so, without say so explicitly, the G.O.P. defense strategy is to appeal to the public and Senators to embrace jury nullification and prevent impeachment and conviction.

As the Supreme Court has never rejected jury nullification but won’t allow defense attorneys to explicitly advocate that jurors substitute their personal beliefs for following the law, I expect Chief Justice Roberts will follow that path, not explicitly allowing the Senate to disregard the law while simultaneously allowing them to “vote their consciences.” That will allow the jury nullification strategy that is currently playing out in the media, to play out in the Senate without ever saying so outright.

Will the jury nullification strategy succeed? I can tell you the answer with complete certainty: Maybe. Ask me again in a year, and I will give you an even more certain answer.

* – Mark R. Bower is a former Court TV Commentator and is a board-certified medical malpractice lawyer in NYC. .


 

February 27th, 2007

Quotes on the Law (Jury Nullification Department)

As the Scooter Libby jury deliberates, now with the loss of one very independent minded juror who refused to wear a Valentine’s Day shirt, my thoughts turn to jury nullification and the comments of one New York jurist (and a new blog on the subject):

Many years ago, I tried a difficult medical malpractice case before Justice Stanley Sklar in New York. When Justice Sklar discharged the jury (we settled during deliberations) he told a story that I remember today:

In the 1600s William Penn was arrested for an “illegal” speech. The jury acquitted Penn, which enraged the colonial judge. So the judge imprisoned the jury for a few days to help “persuade” them to reach a verdict more to his liking. The jury refused and their imprisonment was subsequently overturned. Thus, the power of the jury was established, free of the opinions of the judge. (See: Bushel’s Case)

Juries are supposed to be finders of fact, and apply those facts to the law as given by the judge. But sometimes juries don’t like the law and do what they want. While in civil cases a jury verdict can sometimes be reversed, in criminal cases a defense verdict ends the case for all time. A few quotes to ponder:

The jury has the power to bring a verdict in the teeth of both law and fact. — Oliver Wendell Holmes, United States Supreme Court Justice

The jury has a right to judge both the law as well as the facts in controversy. — John Jay, 1st Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

The pages of history shine on instances of the jury’s exercise of its prerogative to disregard instructions of the judge — U.S. vs. Dougherty, 1972

It would be an absurdity for jurors to be required to accept the judge’s view of the law, against their own opinion, judgment, and conscience. — John Adams

For more on jury nullification, I found a brand new blog on juries from trial lawyer and jury consultant Anne Reed and her blog entry: The Rare Ruby-Throated Jury Nullification

Links to this post:

jury duty stamps — get ’em while they’re hot!!
cross-posted from new york personal injury law blog: credit new york chief judge judith kaye for the idea. last week the united states postal service unveiled, at the new york county courthouse where i picked my first jury and tried my
posted by Eric Turkewitz @ September 19, 2007 11:04 AM