Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Jury Duty in NYC and the Land of the Rising Sun

Last Friday's Second Circuit decision in Husain v. Springer, reversing in part the award of summary judgment for the defendants (the President and other officials of the College of Staten Island) against a lawsuit stemming from alleged improprieties with respect to a student government election ten years ago, prompted a fairly remarkable dissent (on this point) by Judge Jacobs. He wrote:
I concede that this short opinion of mine does not consider or take into account the majority opinion. So I should disclose at the outset that I have not read it. I suppose this is unusual, so I explain why.
. . .
[T]his is not a case that should occupy the mind of a person who has anything consequential to do. In a nutshell, the editors of the College Voice student newspaper used it as a campaign flyer to promote the self-styled radicals of the “Student Union” party in a long-ago student election, and the college president, finding that the partisan use of student-activity funds made a mockery of the election rules, directed that the election be re-run. The gist of the complaint is that the editors' speech was chilled, which is deemed to be a bad thing.
This is a case about nothing. Injunctive relief from the school's election rules is now moot (if it was ever viable); and plaintiffs' counsel conceded at oral argument that the only relief sought in this litigation is nominal damages. Now, after years of litigation over two dollars, the majority will impose on a busy judge to conduct a trial on this silly thing, and require a panel of jurors to set aside their more important duties of family and business in order to decide it.
Unfortunately, the dissent contains some gratuitous red-baiting of the plaintiffs. Judge Jacobs laments "that the majority opinion (44 pages of typescript) will only feed the plaintiffs' fantasy of oppression: that plutocrats are trying to stifle an upsurge of Pol-Potism on Staten Island." Judge Jacobs calls the publication of the plaintiffs "illiterate piffle," which may well be right but is a completely inappropriate judgment to make in a free speech/free press case. If Jacobs is right on the merits, then it shouldn't matter whether the College Voice is the work of H.L. Mencken, Che Guevara or Edmund Burke (assuming any of them were alive).

Of course, on the main issue, Judge Jacobs does seem to have a point. A jury trial in this case does sound like an incredible waste of everybody's time. Indeed, it's a wonder that any country that doesn't already have a jury system would adopt one, but there was
the NY Times yesterday pointing out its pending adoption in Japan (in criminal cases). The Times piece explains that Japanese cultural norms make disagreements among jurors unlikely. Indeed, even discussion appears difficult. That ought to cut down on jury deliberation time, so if Japan ends up with the decade-long delays we sometimes have between contested event and jury trial (in our civil cases), at least they'll be able to reach a verdict quickly.

14 comments:

Kenji said...

The New York Times once again proves itself to be incompetent when reporting on anything outside the United States (not that its domestic reporting is reliable---but that's beside my point here). This is a pretty egregious example of stringing together one stereotype after another that has been rehashed ad nauseum for years, inside and outside by Japan.

When an institutional/legal change as significant as introduction of a jury system occurs, it is inevitable that many people would be nervous about the change, regardless of the cultural context. Imagine, for instance, what would happen if the United States decided to gut its jury system. I'm sure many people would freak out, and they would resort to cultural explanations to explain why such a change would be inconsistent with their national character, tradition, etc., etc. I would expect a journalist not to simply regurgitate such cultural explanations.

Yes, there is a bit of truth in every stereotype, but these stereotypes are easily undermined when the institutional context of such stereotypes is altered. This can be clearly seen in how quickly, for example, shareholder derivative suits took off in Japan, after legal constraints were removed. So much for the Japanese being "harmonious," "nonlitigious," etc.

As someone who has lived and worked in Japan, I have met many, many people in Japan who are as argumentative and willing to question the authority as Americans. I have no doubt that the Japanese will get used to this system very quickly, and pretty soon people will start complaining about jurors becoming too aggressive, too "American."

Tam said...

Kenji,

Other than having met some Japanese who are not adverse to confrontation, do you have any evidence that the cultural observations made by the author of that NYT article are false?

You are undoubtedly right that people will always be nervous about big changes. But they could also have additional reasons for fearing the change, relating to the speicific details of the change itself, not the mere fact of change.

One would totally be missing the point, for example, if one were to dismiss public opposition to a law mandating carpooling (and outlawing driving in your car by yourself, at any time), by saying, "oh, people just always fear change," and to dismiss the underlying cultural reasons why Americans would oppose that particular change.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

You dance around the point, but it is worth noting that the United States is the only country in the world that makes widespread use of juries in civil trials (overwhelmingly in cases where non-economic damages are alleged), and that others have not followed suit.

Also, another nuance of the Japanese criminal justice system is worth noting. Japanese police have the power to summarily punish, without judicial intervention at all, petty offenses.

Kenji said...

Tam,

I'm not saying that those statements about Japanese culture are "false." I'm having an issue with this journalist uncritically analyzing the new Japanese jury system by resorting primarily to simplistic statements of Japanese culture. In my view, culture should never be a primary explanation for any change, resistant to change, etc. History clearly shows how unstable culture is; so, I would expect a journalist to go beyond rehashing old cultural stereotypes about Japan to explain how the Japanese will respond to this new legal change.

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