Tuesday, February 22, 2022
In the space of two days last week, Sarah Palin lost her libel suit against the New York Times twice. Palin’s claim centered on a New York Times editorial in 2017 that linked Palin’s political rhetoric to the mass shooting that nearly cost representative Gabby Giffords her life. While the jury was deliberating on Monday, Judge Jed S. Rakoff, a senior judge in the Southern District of New York and former prosecutor who has written extensively on the flaws in America’s justice system, announced that he planned to dismiss the suit no matter what verdict the jury might return. Though Rakoff allowed the jury to continue deliberating, he announced his finding that Palin had not met the high standard to show “actual malice” by the newspaper, a requirement for public figures raising libel claims established in 1964’s New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. One day later, the jury agreed, rendering a verdict in favor of the Times that is likely to be appealed, perhaps all the way to the Supreme Court.
Rakoff’s unusual step came in response to the Times’s motion for a directed verdict, which claimed that reasonable jurors could only conclude that Palin had failed to meet her evidentiary burden to show actual malice on the Times’s part. Such a directed verdict would be effective without any additional word from the jury. Such verdicts typically occur either before the jury begins deliberations or after they have returned a contrary verdict. In the Palin case, Rakoff’s extremely unusual ruling came while the jury was still deliberating. Rakoff justified that decision on the grounds that Palin was likely to appeal, so his ruling might avoid the need for a retrial. Because appellate courts are generally more deferential to jury verdicts, Rakoff’s apparent hope was that his ruling would allow the appellate court to consider the trial process concluded, then decide the appeal solely the legal issue of actual malice. That would prevent the appellate court from remanding for a new trial, which would render the proceedings to date an enormous waste of resources for all parties involved.
It is no surprise that Judge Rakoff hopes to control the appellate process from this case given its long history in his courtroom. Judge Rakoff initially dismissed Palin’s lawsuit nearly five years earlier, only to have an appellate court reverse his decision and reinstate the case. He may have hoped to avoid the same fate, and thus permitted the jury to reach a verdict even though he was convinced that the suit had no legal merit. But his ruling may have affected jury deliberations nonetheless, undermining the very purpose behind it. After the jury reached its verdict, several jurors informed Judge Rakoff’s clerk that they had seen notifications about the Judge’s ruling on their phones. Though the jurors insisted that those notifications played no role in their decisions, Palin’s legal team is almost certain to seize upon that news in seeking a new trial during the appellate process. Rakoff’s decision thus seems likely to lead to complications on appeal at a minimum, and perhaps even the need for the very resource-intensive retrial he hoped to avoid.
The case is a microcosm of the desire trial judges often harbor to control the outcome of their cases all the way through the appellate process. Trial judges may genuinely aim to enforce the rule of law without an eye towards the repercussions. But trial judges are also human actors within a legal system. And nobody, judge or not, enjoys hearing from their superiors that they have made a mistake and may need to repeat months or even years of work to correct it.
Those kinds of cognitive biases are ever present, ever for trained and experienced judges. Those biases are difficult to control, though gains can be made by engaging more deliberative processes and reducing decision making to checklist-style thinking to reduce the impact of these biases. Blind efforts to buttress a given decision against overrule and remand, however, are unlikely to be successful. As the Palin case illustrates, they may even be counter-productive for the well-intentioned judge.
Judge Rakoff’s judicial legacy is hardly in question. But even he may have succumb to the simple human desire to see an initial decision upheld without question or doubt. And in doing so, he may have done his own decision a disservice, making it far more likely that it will be reversed in the future. That kind of trial judge overreach should be avoided as much as possible.