“Humpty Dumpty” and Recalling a Discharged Jury

Dietz v. Bouldin, 136 S. Ct. 1885 (2016).  When a judge discharges a jury in a civil case, and only thereafter realizes that the jury verdict contains an error, is there anything that can be done?  That was the question in this case, decided today by the Supreme Court of the United States.  By a 6-2 vote, the Court held that a judge has inherent, but limited, power to recall the jury for further deliberations.  Justice Sotomayor wrote the majority opinion, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, and Kagan.  Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Kennedy, dissented and would have adhered to what the dissent said was the common law rule that a jury, once dismissed, cannot be reconstituted.

This was an automobile negligence case.  Defendant admitted liability and the parties stipulated that plaintiff had medical expenses of $10,136, so that was a stipulated damages floor.  The only question was whether plaintiff should get more damages than that.

The jury came back with a verdict of $0.  The judge discharged the jury, and the jurors all left the courtroom.  A few minutes later, however, the judge realized that the verdict was “not legally possible in view of the stipulated damages exceeding $10,000.”  He thus ordered the jurors to be brought back.  Upon being questioned, as a group, the jurors all stated that they had not spoken with anyone in the few minutes since they had been discharged.  Only one juror had even left the building, and that was only to fetch a hotel receipt and bring it back.

Over defendant’s objection, the judge reempaneled the jurors, told them about their error, and directed them to deliberate anew.  The jury came back with an award of $16,000.

On defendant’s appeal, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the result below.  The Supreme Court granted review “to resolve confusion in the Courts of Appeals on whether and when a federal district court has the authority to recall a jury after discharging it.”

Justice Sotomayor stated that “rescinding a discharge order and recalling the jury can be a reasonable response to correcting an error in the jury’s verdict in certain circumstances.”  Considering that courts have the “inherent authority to manage their dockets and courtrooms with a view toward the efficient and expedient resolution of cases,” this inherent power was broad enough to encompass recalling a discharged jury in appropriate circumstances.  That was all the more so since doing that does not violate any statute or rule.

The majority cautioned, however, that the power to recall a discharged jury must be “carefully circumscribed, especially in light of the guarantee of an impartial jury that is vital to the fair administration of justice.” Any suggestion of prejudice “should counsel a district court not to exercise its inherent power.”  Justice Sotomayor went on to list some factors that might create prejudice, even indirectly.  These included the length of the delay between discharge and recall, whether jurors spoke to anyone about the case after their discharge, and what, if any, public reaction to the verdict there was that might affect jurors’ ability to resume impartial deliberations.

Finally, the majority limited its decision to civil cases.  Allowing jury recall in criminal cases might implicate double jeopardy concerns that are not present in the civil context.

Justice Sotomayor rebuffed defendant’s demand for “a categorical bar on reempaneling a jury after it has been discharged,” which defendant asserted was the rule at common law.  The majority found it less than crystal clear that that was the common law rule, but even if it was, modern civil trial practice has evolved far away from the practice at common law in various respects, as Justice Sotomayor discussed.  She rejected defendant’s “‘Humpty Dumpty’ theory of the jury”– the notion that once the jury is discharged, a bond is broken and the jury can never be put back together again.  (As shown, among other places, here, Humpty Dumpty is a not infrequent guest in judicial opinions).

“A discharge order is not a magical invocation,” Justice Sotomayor said.  And such orders can be issued in error, since courts (even the Supreme Court, as Justice Sotomayor observed, citing Justice Jackson’s famous dictum that the Justices “are not final because [they] are infallible, [they] are infallible only because [they] are final”) can and do make mistakes.  Within limited bounds, trial courts should have the ability to cure an erroneous discharge of a jury.  A sound result.