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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Monday, March 3, 2014

Evidence Cert. Grant and a New Aphorism: “Easy Cases Make Bland Law”

The Supreme Court granted cert. today in an Evidence case, WARGER v. SHAUERS.

With limited exceptions, Federal Rule of Evidence 606 forbids a party from attempting to set aside a verdict by introducing evidence from jurors “about any statement made or incident that occurred during the jury's deliberations.”

Here is the issue presented in the petition for cert.:

“whether federal rule of evidence 606(b) permits a party moving for a new trial based on juror dishonesty during voir dire to introduce juror testimony about statements made during deliberations that tend to show the alleged dishonesty”

There is a split in the federal circuits on this question, so the cert. grant here is sensible.  The actual case the Justices chose to take, however, raises the specter of the Court eliding the harder questions that can arise in these circumstances.

Unlike other cases where the argument for an exception to the Rule 606 prohibition for dishonesty in voir dire is stronger and even has constitutional implications (e.g., asking about statements made in deliberation that would reveal a juror was disqualified from serving; or statements regarding alleged juror racism), the alleged “dishonesty” in this case appears hopelessly amorphous:  essentially as I read the materials, the juror in this traffic case said she could be objective and it is alleged that her comments during deliberations (about her prior experience with traffic accidents) reflect a predisposition to the defense.  Thus, one can imagine the Justices ruling that an exception to Rule 606’s prohibition in these circumstances would swallow the prohibition (echoing the district court and court of appeals in this case).  Put that piece together with the fact that then-Judge Alito authored an opinion holding that such evidence was prohibited by Rule 606(b), Williams v. Price, 343 F.3d 223, 235 (3d Cir.2003), and you can guess how this will play out. 

Everyone knows that “hard cases make bad law,” but this cert. grant raises the danger of easy cases making bland law, i.e., law that fails to grapple with the more difficult issues that actually warrant the Supreme Court’s attention.  Cf. Heckler v. Chaney,  470 U.S. 821, 840 (U.S. 1985) (Marshall, J. concurring) (“Easy cases at times produce bad law, for in the rush to reach a clearly ordained result, courts may offer up principles, doctrines, and statements that calmer reflection, and a fuller understanding of their implications in concrete settings, would eschew.”)

Still nice to see the Supreme Court taking this general issue on and perhaps the Justices will address the harder broader questions as well as the narrow question presented here.

(Thanks to George Fisher for highlighting the cert. grant.)

-JB

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2014/03/evidence-cert-grant-and-a-new-aphorism-easy-cases-make-bland-law.html

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