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SCOTUS Maintains Veil of Secrecy Over Juror Deliberations

By William Peacock, Esq. | Last updated on

What happens in the juror room stays in the juror room (unless it's a mock trial and you get to watch hidden cameras and the foreperson who is a lawyer in real life declares himself as such and misstates the law, causing you to lose your graded mock trial final -- sorry, I'm still bitter).

Gregory Warger was riding his motorcycle when Randy Shauers clipped him. Fault was at issue, as was the proper measure of damages, but in the end, the jury sided with Shauers. Warger, after losing a leg in the accident, got nothing.

But then a spark of hope emerged: It turns out the foreperson had lied during voir dire when she was asked if there was any reason why she could not award damages. During deliberations, she told her fellow jurors that her daughter had been at fault in an accident and a lawsuit would have ruined her daughter's life. Someone leaked this to the lawyers and signed an affidavit. Warger wanted a new trial.

Too bad.

Rule 606(b), Obviously

Nothing in this rule is unclear:

During an inquiry into the validity of a verdict or indictment, a juror may not testify about any statement made or incident that occurred during the jury's deliberations; the effect of anything on that juror's or another juror's vote; or any juror's mental processes concerning the verdict or indictment. The court may not receive a juror's affidavit or evidence of a juror's statement on these matters.

And yet, there was a circuit split. The Eighth Circuit sided with the obvious, plain text interpretation of the rule, holding that none of the three statutory exceptions applied and kept the affidavit out. The Supreme Court unanimously agreed.

"We hold that Rule 606(b) applies to juror testimony during a proceeding in which a party seeks to secure a new trial on the ground that a juror lied during voir dire," Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote. "In doing so, we simply accord Rule 606(b)'s terms their plain meaning. The Rule, after all, applies '[d]uring an inquiry into the validity of a verdict.'"

But in case plain text isn't good enough, the Court also took a look at the history of the rule.

History or Legislative History

In 1785, Lord Mansfield held that an affidavit from two jurors about how a case was decided (via a game of chance) was inadmissible to impeach the verdict. The rule crossed the pond, with variations, but the federal version of the anti-impeachment rule was extremely stout, and included evidence of dishonesty in voir dire. Supreme Court decisions mostly backed the federal interpretation of the rule as well.

If history wasn't clear enough, Congress enacted Rule 606(b) in the 1970s after considering both the strict federal rule and the looser "Iowa rule." It picked the federal rule, per the committee discussions that were part of the legislative history. (Sotomayor humorously prefaced her legislative history discussion with, "For those who consider legislative history relevant," a requisite disclaimer to getting some of the more conservative justices to sign on to the unanimous opinion.)

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