Friday, August 24, 2018

When does a judge go too far in controlling the courtroom?

Circuit court judges are at their most polite when writing about district court judges, rarely criticizing their lower-court colleagues even when correcting their errors. But sometimes the cracks show through. Take for example today's unpublished opinion in United States v. Jones, in which appellant Tommy Lee Jones (presumably unrelated to the famously mercurial actor) accused the district court judge (also perhaps a bit mercurial) of misconduct. The panel did not grant relief on that claim, but it did politely articulate some concerns.

At trial, the judge made comments presumably intended to speed along the trial, but seemingly all directed at the defense's attempts to question witnesses. Without ever naming the judge, the opinion states on several occasions that the judge's conduct "was not model judicial behavior." Indeed, the  judge made multiple sua sponte admonishments that defense counsel was "wasting the jury's time." In contrast to the district judge's tone, the appeals court's language is a model of restraint:

  • "Most of the comments, read in context, amounted to inarftul attempts by the district court to promote trial efficiency . . . ."
  • "It is true that the district court could have been more restrained . . . ."
  • "The court should have chosen its words more carefully . . . ."
  • "[T]he district court's expressions of frustration and its interjections were imperfect attempts to run the trial in a focused and efficient manner . . . ."

In supporting its determination that this conduct did not result in an unfair trial, the opinion cited to a prior decision, tactfully noting that the earlier case involved the "same presiding judge ma[king] twenty-six comments like the ones cited by Jones" (emphasis added), and quoting that decision's conclusion that this was "acceptable, though not necessarily model, judicial behavior."

The opinion notes two particularly concerning comments, both of which appeared to make positive conclusions about the credibility of the prosecution's case agent. Although the judge's comments "c[a]me very close to judicial misconduct," they did not cross that line due to the "extensive curative instructions" given before and after the trial. Although it found no abuse of discretion, the Sixth Circuit took the time to remind courts everywhere to "be mindful of their conduct in the presence of the jury and . . . take necessary precautions to prevent appearing partial to one side."

Although Mr. Jones failed to prevail on this claim, the opinion does grant relief on certain sentencing and restitution issues, so Mr. Jones will be back in front of the same judge soon.

No comments: