Tuesday, December 9, 2014
Letting the Jury Lie: Supreme Court Finds Jury Impeachment Rule Precludes Inquiry Into Whether Juror Lied During Voir Dire
Today, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Warger v. Shauers. The opinion addressed an issue that I've written about on this blog many times over the years: Does Federal Rule of Evidence 606(b) preclude the admission of juror testimony/affidavit(s) to prove that a juror lied during voir dire? So, how did the Court rule?
In Shauers, Gregory Warger brought a negligence action against Randy Shauers after an automobile accident left Warger with serious injuries that ultimately required the amputation of his left leg.
During jury selection, counsel for both parties conducted lengthy voir dire of the prospective jurors. Warger’s counsel asked whether any jurors would be unable to award damages for pain and suffering or for future medical expenses, or whether there was any juror who thought, "I don’t think I could be a fair and impartial juror on this kind of case." Prospective juror Regina Whipple, who was later selected as the jury foreperson, answered no to each of these questions.
After the jury returned a verdict in favor of Shauers, a juror "signed an affidavit claiming that Whipple had spoken during deliberations about 'a motor vehicle collision in which her daughter was at fault for the collision and a man died,' and had 'related that if her daughter had been sued, it would have ruined her life.'" Based on the affidavit, Warger moved for a new trial, claiming that the affidavit proved that Whipple lied during voir dire and that an honest response would have provided a valid basis for a challenge for challenge for cause, which in turn would have required reversal under McDonough Pwr. Equip. v. Greenwood.
The district court denied Warger's motion, finding that the affidavit was inadmissible under Federal Rule of Evidence 606(b)(1), which states that
During an inquiry into the validity of a verdict or indictment, a juror may not testify about any statement made or incident that occurred during the jury’s deliberations; the effect of anything on that juror’s or another juror’s vote; or any juror’s mental processes concerning the verdict or indictment. The court may not receive a juror’s affidavit or evidence of a juror’s statement on these matters.
The Eighth Circuit affirmed, setting the stage for the Supreme Court.
In turn, the Court was presented with two arguments. The government claimed that a hearing to determine whether a juror materially lied during voir dire was "an inquiry into the validity of a verdict" because proof that a liar would lead to the verdict being reversed. Warger, meanwhile, claimed that such a hearing had to do with the qualifications of the juror, not the validity of the verdict, and that reversal was merely the remedy. So, how did the Court rule?
We hold that Rule 606(b) applies to juror testimony during a proceeding in which a party seeks to secure a new trial on the ground that a juror lied during voir dire. In doing so, we simply accord Rule 606(b)’s terms their plain meaning. The Rule, after all, applies "[d]uring an inquiry into the validity of a verdict." Rule 606(b)(1). A postverdict motion for a new trial on the ground of voir dire dishonesty plainly entails "an inquiry into the validity of [the] verdict": If a juror was dishonest during voir dire and an honest response would have provided a valid basis to challenge that juror for cause, the verdict must be invalidated.
And this, of course, meant that the Court rejected Warger's claim:
Seeking to rebut this straightforward understanding of Rule 606(b), Warger first insists that the proceedings that follow a motion for new trial based on dishonesty during voir dire do not involve an "inquiry into the validity of the verdict." His argument is as follows: Under McDonough, a party moving for a new trial on the basis of voir dire dishonesty need not show that this dishonesty had an effect on the verdict....Although a success- ful claim will result in vacatur of the judgment, vacatur is simply the remedy for the McDonough error, just as it may be the remedy for a variety of errors that have nothing to do with the manner in which the jury reached its verdict....Therefore, Warger asserts, the "inquiry begins and ends with what happened during voir dire.”"...
We are not persuaded. Warger, it seems, would restrict Rule 606(b)’s application to those claims of error for which a court must examine the manner in which the jury reached its verdict—claims, one might say, involving an inquiry into the jury’s verdict. But the "inquiry" to which the Rule refers is one into the "validity of the verdict," not into the verdict itself. The Rule does not focus on the means by which deliberations evidence might be used to invalidate a verdict. It does not say "during an inquiry into jury deliberations," or prohibit the introduction of evidence of deliberations "for use in determining whether an asserted error affected the jury’s verdict." It simply applies "[d]uring an inquiry into the validity of the verdict"—that is, during a proceeding in which the verdict may be rendered invalid. Whether or not a juror’s alleged misconduct during voir dire had a direct effect on the jury’s verdict, the motion for a new trial requires a court to determine whether the verdict can stand.
So, there you have it. While an inquiry into whether a juror lied during voir dire is not an inquiry into the verdict, it is an inquiry into the validity of the verdict, meaning that Rule 606(b) applies. I much prefer Warger's claim that reversal is merely the remedy for an inquiry into whether a juror lied during voir dire, which is different from an inquiry into the validity of the verdict.
Of course, most of the cases I've written about in this area deal with allegations of racial bias by juror, including the Benally case, in which I submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court, asking it to grant cert in a case in which jurors seemingly lied during voir dire about bias against Native Americans. So, what effect does Shauers have on these types of cases? In a footnote in its Shauers opinion, the Court noted that
There may be cases of juror bias so extreme that, almost by definition, the jury trial right has been abridged. If and when such a case arises, the Court can consider whether the usual safeguards are or are not sufficient to protect the integrity of the process. We need not consider the question, however, for those facts are not presented here.
I have two responses to this: First, I'm glad that the Court seems willing to entertain the notion that Rule 606(b) might not apply in cases of more extreme juror bias, such as racial or religious bias. Second, though, I wonder why the Court granted cert in a civil case involving pretty minor bias -- a daughter in a car accident -- but didn't grant cert in Benally, a criminal case involving significant racial bias. I suspect it's because the Shauers was easier to decide.