Barely Legally

Confessions of a Moot Court Bailiff

Elementally, Dear Watson

Upon reflecting on my essay on the latest developments in the Lori Drew trial, I fear I have made JNOVs sound terrifying. Dear Reader, I assure you that the judicial system is not inherently broken because judges have an apparently final say in any trial. Of course, there is always the appeals process, which is but a small consolation (there seem to be many in the judicial system) for someone who “wins” a trial only to have a judge decide the opposite way. But the important thing to understand about JNOVs concerns the difference between issues of fact and issues of law.

Law students read appeals almost exclusively, in no small part because nearly every trial is focused around determining what actually happened: what did Billy say? What did Billy do? What did Billy intend? (That peculiar sound you hear is the sound of ten thousand philosophers at ten thousand typewriters, one of whom will accidentally theorize about the collected works of The Bard when given a large enough graduate student stipend.) The appeals process focuses on the proper construction and application of laws, and in some cases, on the Constitutionality of the laws themselves.

Take a simple law from New York’s Penal Code: Assault in the Third Degree (120.00):

A person is guilty of assault in the third degree when:

  1. With intent to cause physical injury to another person, he causes such injury to such person or to a third person; or
  2. He recklessly causes physical injury to another person; or
  3. With criminal negligence, he causes physical injury to another person by means of a deadly weapon or a dangerous instrument.

Assault in the third degree is a class A misdemeanor.

Let’s just focus on the first variety of Assault in the Third Degree. There are a few elements to this:

  • intent to cause
  • physical injury
  • to another person
  • [actually] causes
  • such injury
  • to such person
  • or a third person

Whether or not Billy “intended to cause” is an issue of fact. Did Billy, in fact, have that intent? That’s a question for the jury. Was Billy’s intent to cause a “physical” injury? Jury question. Is the injured person “another person?” (Easy) jury question. So on and so forth.

Issues of law are the kind that laypeople roll their eyes at. If Billy scared someone so badly that they had a heart attack, is that a physical injury? When the law says “causes,” what does it mean? Billy caused someone to be scared, which is a far cry from stabbing someone, or pushing someone down a flight of stairs. Further, although Billy may have intended to scare this person, does the law transfer his intent to scare over to an intent to cause a heart attack? These are all issues that are hopelessly absurd in my elementary hypothetical situation, which illustrates why law professors spend more time thinking up exam questions than I spend on blog posts.

So when a judge overrules a jury, and issues a verdict notwithstanding the jury, she is not deciding issues of fact. The judge is not permitted to decide that a witness is lying, or that there’s simply no way Billy’s alibi could be true. (As always in our legal system, there are exceptions for outrageously inept juries.) But after the jury decides what the basic facts are, and then proceeds to misapply those facts to the law, the judge can enter a JNOV.

In my horrible hypothetical, if the jury were to find that Billy did not actually cause the injury to the third person (an element in any of the three varieties of Assault in the Third Degree), but nonetheless convicted him, the judge can overrule the jury because at that point, the issue is a matter of law. The jury has done its job in finding what the basic facts of the case are, but has failed to properly apply the law. In this contingency, the judge may step in and assure that a convoluted legal process does not lead to an improper decision.