WASHINGTON – Once jurors return their verdict and the judge thanks them and sends them on their way, their job is done. Or is it?
That’s the question that turned a minor traffic accident in Montana into a Supreme Court case on Tuesday.
The federal jury was deliberating how much to award a man whose car was broadsided at an intersection. The amount was supposed to be something more than the $10,000 the parties had previously agreed to. Instead, jurors said the defendant owed nothing.
The judge discharged the jury before he realized a mistake had been made. He recalled it to service, at which point jurors quickly awarded the man $15,000 and then went home for good. The issue before the high court was whether the judge could call them back.
A federal appeals court upheld the judge’s actions.
Some justices raised concerns that even in the brief period between their exit from the courtroom and their return, jurors could be exposed to outside influences.
It’s not uncommon, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said, “for families to be crying outside of courtrooms, for families to be talking to each other and visibly expressing either their pleasure or displeasure at what a jury did.”
That wasn’t an issue in this case and the judge did ask the jurors whether they had talked about the case with anyone in the brief interim.
Justice Elena Kagan wondered whether it matters that jurors take off their “juror hat” once they are discharged. “You start thinking about a case in a different way, and you start even wondering whether, when you had your juror hat on, you were thinking about it in the right way.”
The lawyer for Rocky Dietz, the man injured in the accident, told the justices that his client deserves a new trial in federal court. The lawyer, Kannon Shanmugam, said that federal judges don’t have the authority to recall jurors “for the purpose of deliberating anew and reaching an entirely different verdict.” Dietz wanted more money than the jury determined he was owed, though the record in the case does not indicate how much more.
But several justices said the time and expense of a new trial may not be worth it when a judge can ask the recalled jurors if they have talked about the case or been exposed to improper influence.
Trials are expensive for the parties, and the judicial system, Justice Stephen Breyer said. “Why don’t we say the efficiency argument is what counts? It matters to people. It means whether they can get their cases resolved or not,” Breyer said.
One issue that arose Tuesday was whether the justices should set a limit on the length of time between the jury’s discharge and its recall to service, or on how far jurors get from the courtroom. Lawyer Neal Katyal, representing defendant Hillary Bouldin, said the appropriate test is whether jurors have been compromised.
Shanmugam said he would say juries cannot be recalled if they are no longer under a judge’s control. He acknowledged his proposed standard depends on the definition of discharge.
“That’s pretty lawyerly,” Chief Justice John Roberts said, to laughter.
Shanmugam replied, “Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice.”
A decision in Dietz v. Bouldin, 15-458, is expected by late June.