Tuesday, October 14, 2014
Two recent events overlap to raise a question about rendering of verdicts after trial. In Warger v. Schauers, the US Supreme Court recently heard oral argument about whether a civil plaintiff can move for a new trial based on information about something that occurred during jury deliberations that ended in a defendant’s verdict. The case raises the seemingly well settled question about whether the courts and the public and the parties can have access to information about what happens in a jury room during deliberations. The long standing and unwavering current answer is a resounding no. Based on press and opinion, the Supreme Court does not seem likely to change that.
In Warger, the plaintiff sought to rely on information that the forewoman had stated during deliberations that her daughter had been at fault in an auto accident and that her life would have been ruined if she had been sued. Apparently, the forewoman had made no mention of this during voir dire. The plaintiff relied on this information to seek a new trial, arguing that the forewoman had been dishonest and should not have been seated on the jury. The lower courts refused to rely on this information because it violates the total privacy given to jury deliberations in the United States (absent a third-party influence into the jury room). Although the plaintiff sought to escape this well-established rule by arguing that his claim related to jury composition not deliberations (she shouldn't and wouldn't have been seated), observers of the oral argument did not think the Court would accept that distinction. At a time when the public has so much more information than any given jury, and when jury service has sometimes been viewed as an opportunity for fame, our continued refusal to examine what goes on in the jury room jeopardizes the public's trust in the reliability of the jury process, even though it protects an ideal version of the democratic jury.
In contrast to this total prohibition against scrutiny of deliberations we have the reading, on worldwide television, of the verdict in the Oscar Pistorius trial. Not only was the verdict rendered in public; according to South African law the judge who rendered it (with the help of two appointed assessors) gave all of her reasons for the verdict, including resolution of credibility questions, the drawing or rejection of inferences, and the like.
So these two cases are a study in contrasts. Is it necessary to close our eyes to improprieties in the jury room – if indeed they occur – in order to secure the right to a traditional lay jury? Do we have to give up the judgment of lay jurors to learn the reasons why a jury resolves a case the way it does? Food for thought.