Category: Civil Procedure


Should We Have Professional Juries?

jury2.jpgAccording to Legal Profession Blog:

The New Jersey Appellate Division reversed an $876,000 plaintiff’s verdict in a slip-and-fall case where the plaintiff had fallen while looking for pantyhose in aisle five of a supermarket owned by the defendant. . . . [T]he jury foreperson was a New Jersey State Senator, full-time law professor and lawyer who had published an article in the New Jersey Law Journal about his experiences serving as a juror. The defendant contended that the article “disclosed that he improperly influenced the jurors and that there was apparent misunderstanding of the jury charges.”

The court’s opinion is here. The article by the law professor — Robert Martin of Seton Hall Law School (who is also a New Jersey state senator) is in the New Jersey Law Journal and requires a subscription to access it.

What should one conclude from this case?

The reaction many would have is that it was unwise to put a law professor on the jury. Shouldn’t one expect when a law professor or lawyer is on the jury that he or she will have significant influence? If you put a bunch of people in a airplane cockpit, none of whom know how to fly a plane, along with a pilot, it doesn’t take Einstein to figure out that the people might want to consult with the pilot! As my colleague Jonathan Turley writes in his blog: “Martin’s article is a perfect example why some of us oppose lawyers sitting as jurors. It is a terrible practice that encourages undue influence by a single juror in deliberations.”

But there’s another lesson to be learned from this case. We should have professional juries. I’m increasingly of the opinion that our jury system is a joke. Consider some of the very thoughtful points Professor Martin wrote in his article about his experiences:

I became acutely aware that jurors are not generally permitted to ask questions during trial (except through written request). . . .

Additionally, jurors are usually prohibited from taking notes. . . .

In preparation of our deliberation, the judge gave us detailed instructions, which in this case lasted about an hour. These instructions amounted to a mini-course in tort law, similar in content to what some law students have trouble absorbing over the course of a full semester. Although the judge read from carefully prepared notes, we again were prevented from taking our own notes (but reminded that we must closely follow all of the instructions).

The process which Martin describes (and which indeed is quite common) is ridiculous is so many ways. First, it is ridiculous that juries are basically taught the law after hearing the facts of the case. If one is applying a rule, shouldn’t one know about the rule first in order to determine which facts are relevant and which are not?

Second, it takes law students three years to learn the law — or at least a semester to learn a specific subject like torts — and yet juries are expected to understand the law after just one brief lecture from the judge. Who are we kidding when we think that the jury is really applying the law? Juries probably have little to no idea about what the law is.

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Sometimes You Just Cannot Sue

According to BBC News, the suit entitled Ernie Chambers v. God has met its maker. Nebraska state senator Ernie Chambers sued God in federal district court, seeking a permanent injunction to prevent “death, destruction and terrorisation.” The complaint alleged that God had threatened the plaintiff and the people of Nebraska and had inflicted widespread death and destruction “upon millions of the Earth’s inhabitants.” The court dismissed the case on the grounds of insufficient process: because the defendant has no address, legal papers cannot be served. The court apparently rejected the plaintiff’s argument that “since God knows everything, God has notice of the lawsuit.”


News for Civil Procedure Fans

During the fall semester, my civil procedure class covers personal jurisdiction. While most personal jurisdiction cases tend towards the staid, Calder v. Jones provides some possibility for fun. As my comrades in civil-procedure arms will know, the case involves a defamation suit brought by Shirley Jones, the mother from the Partridge Family. Every semester, this connection has great promise to generate some good cheer about the case, but of late I have been disappointed. This year, I desperately asked: “Don’t you remember the Music Man? or the Partridge Family?” (I thought about singing “I think I love you” but thankfully I ignored that foolish impulse). All I got was blank stares, a clear sign that I am helplessly unhip. My disappointment, however, may come to an end: NBC has just announced plans to reinvent the Partridge Family for prime-time television. Now, I just have to hope that my future students tune in. Amidst all of terrible news about the economy, this may lift spirits, even momentarily for civil procedure fans.


GMAC v. HTFC: Update on the World’s Worst Deposition

I’ve blogged before about GMAC v. HTFC, criticizing Judge Robreno’s contempt ruling against attorney Joseph Ziccardi:

The big picture question here is the degree to which attorneys should be punished for failing to affirmatively prevent their clients’ incivility. Some punishment of this client is certainly warranted. But punishing the “mild-mannered” solo practitioner attorney as if he were equally culpable goes too far. I hope that the Court walks it back a bit.

Guess Judge Robreno isn’t a reader of the blog. On August 13, he issued a memorandum and opinion denying the motion to reconsider his judgment. (Read Part I and Part II). The gist, putting aside the high bar for reconsideration & the procedural objections, is that the Court found it appropriate to fine Ziccardi $30K for failing to stop his client from being obstructive at the deposition, even while accepting that he had vigorously counseled his client “offline” to behave. Ziccardi’s silence during the deposition was, per se, sanctionable.

Appellate standards for review of discovery orders being what they are, I guess that Ziccardi won’t prosecute an appeal, but this decision strikes me as overreaching.


Monster Cases

ApocalypseStSeverFol148vHorsesWithHeadsOfLions2.jpgHere’s a challenge: what’s the oldest active litigation pending in the federal district courts? I’m coding dockets (as always) and I came across a monster in the Southern District of Ohio that has been pending since 1991 (it’s a CERCLA case relating to the United Scrap Lead site located in Troy Ohio). The government continues, it seems, to seek pockets to pay cleanup costs, seventeen years into the case.

Can you beat that?

(Image Source, Wikicommons, Folio 148v of the Apocalypse of St. Sever (St. Sever Beatus), The horses with heads of lions.)


Oddities from Docketland

I’m hip deep in my latest docketology project, which, on my end, involves organizing lots of RAs who read many dockets and code them. Apart from the $10/hr wage, and the occasional lunch, the only thing my RA team gets in return for spending too much time on this tedious task is the chance to see a few small nuggets of random nuttiness emerging from the glorious mess that is our litigation system. Take, for example, this claim:

“TRAVEL BARGAINS USA is reasonably assumed to have a Corporate Charter or otherwise a Mission Statement which does not include as part of its ordinary Charter the act of threatening such other business entities as Plaintiff A VACATION 4 YOU, by, for example, stating that You’re up shits creek because if you do not honor the certificates, or refund our money in full on the distributorship, we WILL put you out of business. It will only take a few complaints from people. You started this war, and now you have to deal with ME! “

Of course, such nutbar pleading rarely survives judicial scrutiny. It’s thus a surprise to see one particular set of phrases repeated in over a dozen totally distinct, veil piercing cases:

“Any character assassination will activate Instrumentality Rule and pierce the corporate veil of the United States and all agencies,”


“All testimony will be without immunity – piercing the corporate veil and Instrumentality Rule.”

images.jpgMy RAs and I have tracked this language, which sometimes appears in a counterclaim and sometimes in the complaint, to The Court Watcher’s document page, which lists a “counter-claim“. That document, in turn, appears to suggest that filers ought to check to see if the other side has violated any particular provisions of the declaration of independance as a way to frame their pleading. I particularly like the following form paragraph:

“Was there a treaty or alliance or letter of Marque and reprisal imposed against you by the public servant? __ Yes __ No Explain”

A letter of marque? Avast mateys!


Tribal Court Jurisdiction (II)

Yesterday I argued that Plains Commerce Bank has a number of flaws. Today I want to discuss the fundamental uniqueness of tribal court jurisdiction in the American system. (As a caveat, the following analysis is intentionally brief and leaves out much of the complexity of the field to keep it relatively generally accessible.)

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Tribal Court Jurisdiction

Thanks to Dan and the rest of the Concurring Opinions staff for having me here this month. I’ve been reading the blog since its inception and I’m thrilled to get the chance to be a part of it.

I am a little late to the party, but I thought I would join in the chorus of commentary on last week’s developments in the Supreme Court. I’m talking, of course, about Plains Commerce Bank v. Long Family Land & Cattle Co., the Court’s most recent foray into the jurisdiction of tribal courts, one of my research areas. (I think the court might have decided another case as well).

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Sanctioned Lawyer Throws Himself on the Mercy of the Court

[Updated and bumped, for update see below]

Readers may recall the case of GMAC Bank v. HTFC Corp. GMAC is infamous because of an opinion by E.D.Pa. Judge Robreno discussing the deposition of HTFC CEO Aaron Wider, in which Wider profanely abused plaintiff’s counsel Robert Bodzin. If you need to see it, and are in environment where lots of cursing isn’t going to get you in trouble, hit play and shudder at the decline of civility in American life:

In his opinion, Robreno also sanctioned Wider’s attorney Joseph Ziccardi for failing to restrain his client and even (allegedly) snickering at the bad conduct. Ziccardi was stripped of his pro hoc admission, fined $29,000 (equally with his client) and referred to the Bar.

Ziccardi has filed a motion for reconsideration. I found it quite persuasive. In the memorandum in support of the motion, and the reply, Ziccardi provides evidence that he didn’t snicker at Wider’s profane conduct but instead tried to stop it off the record. The evidence was purportedly not submitted earlier because Ziccardi was still representing Wider and lacked notice that the Court was considering sanctioning him under the discovery rules as a co-offender. Ziccardi has provided affidavits from (among others) himself and Wider. The latter in particular is a must read. Wider falls on his sword for his former lawyer, stating that Ziccardi had repeatedly cautioned him not to act out and worked to prevent his outbursts behind the scenes. (Oddly, based on this document, I’m not sure that anyone is currently representing Wider. The affidavit is very much not in his interest, but sounds like it was a lawyer-generated document. Ziccardi’s conflict is quite acute at this point, as he realizes, and I wonder how he handled that communication.)

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Docketology in Print

I’m happy to point out that my article, Docketology, District Courts and Doctrine, is now in print in Volume 85 of the Washington University Law Review. You can find previous discussion of the piece on this blog, starting here. The final version is significantly improved over the drafts, so I hope you’ll check it out. If anyone is motivated by the article to try some dockets research, let me know know, and I will tell you all the ways I’ve messed it up in the past!

Coming next: Docketology, Part II.