Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Trial courts have more power than God

Trial courts have such broad authority to manage their calendars that even unfair decisions about when to proceed with trial are almost unreviewable on appeal. It's been said that federal judges are among the most powerful people in the country. There's some truth to that.

The case is Payne v. Jones, decided on October 3. This is a somewhat wild case alleging police brutality against a police officer who beat up a disabled veteran in the mental health unit of an emergency room. The officer attacked the veteran after the veteran kicked the officer in the groin after the officer insulted the plaintiff's Marine Corps tattoo and said that "Marines are pussies."

Right before trial, the officer-defendant became seriously ill and had to miss the start of trial because he was in the hospital. I imagine that many judges would put the trial over a few weeks. But in this case, the trial court forged ahead, telling the jury that the defendant was not able to make it to trial through no fault of his own. Even after the trial court got confirmation that defendant was in the hospital, he disallowed the jury from hearing this information, saying only that defendant was ill. Jones missed two out of five trial days but was able to testify in his defense.

Jones argues that the trial court abused its discretion in refusing to grant a continuance, or adjournment, of the trial, because the jury must have developed an unfavorable impression of him since Payne was trying his case against an "empty chair" for three days. Since this must have been a close case in light of the fact that Payne provoked Jones to attack him by kicking Jones in the groin, this is not a bad argument. Any advantage for the plaintiff could hurt Jones at trial. But the Court of Appeals affirms the verdict, reminding us that district courts have much latitude in managing trials and, besides, the trial court did tell the jury several times that Jones was unable to attend trial because of illness. If anything, the Court of Appeals (Leval, McLaughlin and Jacobs) says, had the trial court told the jury that Jones was in the hospital, it might have evoked sympathy for Jones, thereby unfairly prejudicing Payne.

No comments: