Articles Tagged with trial by jury

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What is the role of a trial judge?  This question may often be debated among lawyers and between lawyers and judges themselves and maybe even by law students in school, but rarely is it a hot topic discussed in the public by non-lawyers. Until now.  You may be following the Paul Manafort trial, in which the trial judge has been both criticized and congratulated for his conduct in presiding over that trial.  As I write this, the jury is out.  By most news accounts, that trial judge, Hon. T.S. Ellis, has often made known his likes and dislikes to the jurors and the prosecution seems to be taking the brunt of the abuse. So much so, that the prosecution has filed at least two motions requesting the trial judge apologize and make it clear to the jury that his remarks are not to be taken as commentary on the strength or weakness of the prosecution’s case. Things seem to have finally boiled over when, one morning, the trial judge did just that, he essentially admonished himself  to the jury for his comments and  said “Put aside any criticism. I was probably wrong in that,” and  Ellis said, concluding, “Any criticism of counsel should be put aside — it doesn’t have anything to do with this case.” “This robe doesn’t make me anything other than human.”

“This robe doesn’t make me anything other than human.” Think about that for a second. Who else wears a cape at work?  A Super Hero?  Every word that comes out of a trial judge’s mouth in front of a jury has some persuasion attached to it…some hidden meaning. Jurors often take their cues from the trial judge.  If the trial judge doesn’t seem to like a certain attorney, well, guess what?  The jury probably won’t like that attorney, either.  Jurors may be thinking:  “Who does the judge think should win? He’s the expert, he knows.  Does he like the defense attorney better than the plaintiff’s attorney?  Does she think the plaintiff is exaggerating?  He was rude to the female lawyer…maybe he thinks she is incompetent?  What will he think of us if we find for the plaintiff?  And return a large verdict?  Maybe he thinks that shouldn’t happen in his courtroom?”  As one trial lawyer said about Judge Ellis. “He can be very dominating,” said Jim Brosnahan, a California trial lawyer who defended John Walker Lindh in the American Taliban casebefore Judge Ellis. “The interesting question is: Is it aimed fairly at both sides, or is it particularly at one side?”  Also, keep in mind how extraordinary it is that Judge Ellis essentially apologized to the jury for his own comments, recognizing they may have sent the wrong signal to the jury. This is a very rare occurrence for a judge to do that.

First, let me say, that we are blessed with many wonderful trial judges in Georgia.  I have tried nearly 75 jury trials in the last  30 years of practicing law, all in Georgia, and with the very blatant exception of one Superior Court judge (she knows who she is), I have always been treated with the utmost respect and courtesy by our trial judges. Even when we may disagree, we do so with civility, not taking personal shots at one another. That is not to say that some aren’t demanding, or controlling, or picky, or even temperamental.  Many trial judges are all of those things, because they are human and sometimes the stress of a trial gets to them the way it gets to everyone involved or they simply see their role as being in command of their courtroom.  It has been my experience that our Georgia trial judges treat all those who come before them with the civility expected out of someone who wears a robe, has her name on a courtroom and has been given the authority by the State to preside over a trial, which is often one of the most important moments in a citizen’s life.

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It seems to be in vogue with some trial judges currently to allow jurors to ask questions of witnesses after both sides of the litigation are finished asking their questions. This is currently a hot topic due to the Tex McIver trial, currently being tried in the Fulton County Superior Court in front of Judge Robert McBurney. Judge McBurney, rather famously, permits jurors to ask questions of witnesses after questioning by the prosecution and the defense counsel.  Presumably, Judge McBurney allows this practice in civil cases as well as criminal cases, although Superior Court doesn’t see as many civil cases as criminal.  All felonies in Georgia must be tried in Superior Court.  The practice of Judge McBurney allowing witnesses to ask their own questions was discussed extensively before the trial in a podcast produced by the AJC called Breakdown. It is hosted by veteran legal affairs journalist Bill Rankin and I highly recommend it.  In that podcast, defense counsel Bruce Harvey gives his opinion on why it is not only a bad practice to allow jurors to ask questions, but, also, why it is probably unconstitutional.  For example, we all know that the 5th Amendment of the Constitution gives a criminal defendant the right to remain silent, even throughout the trial, so that the government must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt without any assistance from the defendant. Harvey, rightfully, preposes the hypothetical of a juror asking “Why didn’t the defendant take the stand to tell us what happened?”  Of course, the judge is not going to permit that question to be answered, but the jurors (or at least the one juror who asked that question) will know the judge didn’t approve it and wouldn’t permit it to be answered, and the bias that answers “why” is naturally because the defendant must be guilty. So simply by denying that juror’s question, the 5th amendment constitutional right is implicated and violated because it was allowed even to be raised in court.

There has lately been alot of discussion in social media about this among lawyers, too.  You can find some of this discussion on Twitter at #texmciver and in the comments on Facebook where WSBTV is livestreaming the trial.  If I were to take a poll, I think the vast majority of trial lawyers is against the practice for the reasons stated above. Also, other websites are livestreaming the same WSBTV feed, like wildabouttrial and lawandcrime.   Both of these websites have a comments section where viewers can post their comments about the trial. It is pretty fascinating, especially for court enthusiasts like me.  On Facebook, there have been some thought-provoking comments about allowing jurors to ask questions of witnesses.  Below are just some of the comments I have seen:

“I think there are two questions that judges should ask themselves before considering this. 1). Why would I allow jurors to ask questions? Whatever the answer is (to help the jurors clarify any issues that the holder of the burden of proof has not clarified, etc). 2). If I am am being a neutral, unbiased referee, should that matter to me?”

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I’ve got jury duty and I can’t wait!  Said no one ever (except maybe lawyers who almost never get to serve on a jury).  You have just received your jury summons, making an already bad day worse. Now what do you do?

  1.  Show up at court.  When you receive a juror’s summons, it is an actual summons for you to appear in court. Failure to appear in court at the correct time can place you in contempt of court. Don’t make matters worse by failing to appear.  I have seen different courts handle this in different ways, ranging from a mere scolding by the trial court judge to payment of a fine. The trial judge can even hold you in contempt and threaten you with jail (although I have never seen this happen, and state court judges are elected so I doubt it ever will happen).  A trial judge in 

    Virginia recently gave 200 people who had been summoned for jury duty but who had failed to appear a lecture on the importance of the role of the jury in our judicial systems. “Jurors perform a vital role in the American system of justice,” Circuit Judge Jerrauld Jones told him at Friday’s court hearing, noting that the Founding Fathers thought they were so important, they put jury trials in the Bill of Rights.  “Jury trials prevent tyranny,” Jones said.  Judge Jones was, apparently, in a generous mood as he forgave their $100 fine and several people exclaimed “Thank you!” and “Bless the Lord!” when Jones told them he was dismissing the cases against them.

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Friends:  I have to confess, I back slid recently and agreed to mediation of a client’s case.  I had not agreed to a mediation of my clients’s cases in several years, primarily because of a sense that mediation  generally was not successful and perhaps was even counterproductive, pushing the opposing parties even further into their corners as positions became entrenched due to ridiculous positions taken during mediation, all through the implicit stamp of approval of a rather expensive mediator (who, by the way, gets paid regardless of whether he or she is successful in resolving the case).  I regret allowing my client to agree to mediate his case. And again, I have made my pact with myself  not to make that mistake again. Here is a short list (certainly not exhaustive) of reasons why I have fallen out with mediation of personal injury cases.

  1.  Defense counsel get away with childish, immature positions and remarks.  I had a case once in which the insurance carrier wanted to try to settle prior to my filing a lawsuit. I gave them a dollar amount to do just that. They refused. They took the “so sue me” attitude. So I accommodated them and sued their insured.  After two years of litigation, when the insurance carrier is in the corner because of the egregious facts that I have now exposed during discovery, I make a new demand reflecting the increase in value of the case in the last two years.  Defense lawyers and the insurance adjuster say they “are hurt” by the increase and take away their initial offer in bad faith at medication.  Did I not tell them that their best opportunity to settle the case was before I filed suit and litigated the case for years, and that in so doing, their case would only get worse?
  2. Defense counsel approach me to mediate, saying “they really want to get the case resolved.”  So I agree to mediation. My clients take a day off from their jobs. We are paying a mediator. Insurance adjuster offers at mediation only what was already on the table BEFORE mediation and says that’s it, take it or leave it.  That’s one of the most UNprofessional things I can even imagine, yet it happens. A simple phone call to me would have sufficed. Yet they put my client through the stress and expectation that maybe finally, after two years of duking it out, they have come to their senses and want to resolve the case for what is only fair. Nope.

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Did you know there is underway right now an effort in the Georgia Senate to eliminate your Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial in medical malpractice cases?  That’s right.  A bill has been introduced (again), SB 86, that seeks to eliminate jury trials in medical malpractice claims.  This bill was introduced by Senator Brandon Beach from Alpharetta, and this is, at least, the second time around for the bill. Last year the same bill was introduced and a coalition made up of odd bedfellows, the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association (GTLA) and the  Medical Association of Georgia (MAG), opposed it and it died a slow death. Like Lazarus, it has now been resurrected.

Supporters of the bill make the wild claim that this bill would reduce so-called “defensive medicine” where doctors  supposedly order unnecessary medical tests.  I find such a claim outrageous and offensive.  Doctors should, likewise, be offended by this strategy.  I have talked with many doctors and taken many depositions of doctors.  I have never found them to order what they know are unnecessary medical tests.  For a doctor to order what he or she knows to be an unnecessary test (and get paid for it, by the way) would be fraudulent and would violate every ethical oath the physician has ever taken.  So that cannot be the real issue with this piece of legislation.

Who is behind it?  Not the doctors themselves, as evidenced by the opposition of MAG, the doctors’ professional association.  Not the citizens of Georgia.  There has been no rallying cry that doctors shouldn’t be held accountable as every other citizen may be with he or she commits negligence that results in injury to someone.  There have been no “runaway” verdicts in Georgia, either.  Statistics show that doctors and hospitals win almost 85%-90% of all medical malpractice trials in Georgia.

Today I read a funny article about a jury trial in Florida in which the jury sent the trial judge a note asking for a whiteboard and markers and a “big bottle of wine.”   I thought that was pretty cute.

Going to trial is a big decision. Although I have tried many, many trials in many counties in Georgia, most of my clients have never been involved in any trial and the trial  of their personal injury case will be the one and only time they will ever step foot in a courtroom and the one and only time the case will be about them. You can imagine this might produce some anxiety.jurycourtroomdrawing

One of the questions often asked is, if we go to trial, who will decide my case? The answer to that question for all of the cases I try is the jury. I try only jury trials.  If a  judge decides your case, which can happen in Georgia if no one requests a jury trial (very rare in personal injury cases ) or if both parties consent, it is called a Bench Trial. You may be familiar with the trial of Oscar Pistorius going on right now in South Africa.  Mr. Pistorius is being tried for murder in the death of his girlfriend.   In South Africa, such a trial will be decided by the very judge who is presiding over the case. Just recently it was announced that the judge will render a verdict in that case on September 11, 2014.

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The easy answer to the question I pose above is an emphatic “Yes!”  Right?  For any homeowner to have his or her home wrongfully foreclosed upon and scheduled to be sold at auction on the Courthouse steps, as we still do here in Georgia through nonjudicial forclosures ( a topic which deserves it’s own blog), would create enormous, undue emotional stress.   Your home is, more than likely, the largest purchase you have ever made and has the highest financial investment value of anything you have ever personally invested in. We call our home our “castle.”  So when a corporation wrongfully forecloses on your castle, your home, trying to sell the house right out from under your homeowning feet, don’t you think this would just naturally cause you some undue stress?  Worrying whether you would lose your house?  Lose your biggest investment?  Lose the roof over your and your family’s heads?  Should whoever did so wrongfully foreclose on your house have to face justice in the form of a jury?

One would thing so, but when it comes to our ever-increasing conservative Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, the answer, unfortunately, seems to be “not so fast.” In a recent 11th Circuit opinion, the Court held although a person in such a position of being wrongfully foreclosed upon may very well have a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress, the amount of proof one must offer just to get past the judge and get to a jury may be impossible to meet, thus ending the homeowner’s ability to seek redress for the wrong. In Lodge v. Kondaur Capital Corp., et. al, issued on May 8, 2014, the Eleventh Circuit (of which Georgia is a part) held that the plaintiffs, the Lodges, had not offered enough “proof” of emotional distress suffered by them at the thought of their home being wrongfully foreclosed upon.  The Lodges, at the time, were in bankruptcy.  Federal bankruptcy laws forbid foreclosure upon a home that is in bankruptcy. The Defendants in Lodge willfully violated this law, known as the “Bankruptcy stay” and moved to foreclose upon the Lodges home, even though that was the very reason the Lodges had filed for bankruptcy.

The Court found against the Lodges, denying them the right to have a jury decide their case.  The Court said the Lodges hadn’t offered the Court enough proof of emotional distress. But whether there is sufficient proof of a claim should be a question to be decided by a jury, not three appellate judges. As the attorney for the Lodges, Ralph Goldberg, noted in response to this narrow opinion, “I don’t understand why anybody would not think that…hearing that your house is about to be foreclosed upon is significant emotion distress.  It seems to me they’re out of touch with how normal people lead their lives.”

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