Ethics Board Seeks Sanctions Against Judge Who Disparaged a Jury Verdict

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Ethics Board Seeks Sanctions Against Judge Who Disparaged a Jury Verdict

In a complaint filed with the Pennsylvania Court of Judicial Discipline, the Judicial Conduct Board alleges that Judge Mark Tranquilli  (1) in a post-trial conversation with the attorneys in a criminal case, referred to a juror as “Aunt Jemima” and said she had a “baby daddy” at home “slinging heroin” and referred to a second juror as a “knucklehead;” (2) made insulting remarks to the parties in a custody case and affected a manner of speech referred to as “Ebonics"; and (3) during sentencing in a case, made improper remarks regarding a defendant’s family and said he would incarcerate her automatically for any probation violation regardless of the facts.  The Board also asked that the judge be suspended, arguing that if he “is permitted to continue exercising judicial duties during the pendency of the Board Complaint, the public’s confidence in the judiciary will continue to erode.”

11th Federal Circuit Spells Out Test for Evaluating Prospective Juror’s Honesty in Voir Dire

Alabama death-row inmate Casey McWhorter sought post-conviction relief from a federal court claiming a juror failed to disclose that her father was murdered.  During voir dire, all venire members were asked whether they knew anyone who was a victim of a crime.  The federal circuit, reviewing both the state court and U.S. District Court decisions, applied McDonough Power Equip., Inc. v. Greenwood, 104 S. Ct. 845 (1984). There, the Supreme Court held that to obtain a new trial when a juror gives a “mistaken, though honest response” to a voir dire question, the defendant (1) “must first demonstrate that a juror failed to answer honestly a material question on voir dire,” and (2) “then further show that a correct response would have provided a valid basis for a challenge for cause.”  This is because “[t]he motives for concealing information may vary, but only those reasons that affect a juror’s impartiality can truly be said to affect the fairness of a trial.”  The appellate panel found that McWhorter failed to meet the first prong of McDonough and show the juror was intentionally dishonest.  At most, the juror was equivocal in her response to the victim-of-crime question and that equivocation did not affect her role as an impartial juror.

Despite High COVID-19 New Case Numbers, Iowa Resumes In-person Jury Trials

At the end of August, Iowa had the highest numbers of new COVID cases in the nation.  With concern for the speedy trial rights of incarcerated defendants, the Iowa Supreme Court authorized the conduct of two pilot jury trials—one beginning next week.  The Des Moines Register reports this undertaking has prompted serious dialogue about how to balance public safety with the constitutional rights of litigants.

Texas Judges Share Reflections on Resumption of Jury Trials

The Lone Star State is perhaps the national leader in the number of jury trials conducted during the pandemic.  As a sequel to the report we noted in last week’s Bulletin, the Texas Office of Court Administration released a five-minute video featuring “can do” attitudes of trial judges and depictions of courthouse logistics.

Massachusetts Modifies Rubric for Ruling on Alleged Batson Violations

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts recently changed the requirements of what a party challenging an opponent’s use of peremptory strikes must show at the first stage of the three-prong Batson doctrine.  Since 1979, Massachusetts caselaw required defense counsel to make a prima facie showing that the prosecution was engaging in a "pattern" of challenging members of a discrete group and a "likelihood" they were being excluded solely for their membership in that group.  In Commonwealth v. Sanchezthe court announced that the better course at step one in a challenge hearing should be the federal test announced in Batson.  In doing so, the court stated, “"We retire the language of 'pattern' and 'likelihood,' which has long governed the first-step inquiry under [Commonwealth v. Soares] because we conclude that this language has resulted in persistent confusion for judges and litigants alike."

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