Judge-Juror Note Passing Can Lead To Miscommunications


In an age of instant electronic messages, judges communicate with deliberating jurors as teenagers used to do in homeroom when the teacher wasn’t looking, by passing paper notes to each other, the Associated Press reports. With judges using stilted legalese and jurors writing in awkwardly formal English, miscommunication can be common.

Attempts by jurors in the ongoing deliberations in former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s corruption case return to communicate with Judge James Zagel left the judge, attorneys and others scratching their heads. In one of two cryptic notes, jurors asked what should happen if they couldn’t agree “on given counts.” The judge’s careful response was negotiated with the attorneys. While seemingly archaic, the note passing is actually a modern practice that evolved as judges sought to limit appeals based on what they tell juries. The exchanges can cause problems in a legal system that is a collision of worlds occupied by lawyers and by laymen who are called upon to sit in judgment. “There’s plenty of evidence [] that both parties don’t understand what the other is getting at,” said Northwestern University law Prof. Shari Diamond, an expert on juries and jury instructions. “If my students couldn’t directly ask me a question and I couldn’t directly answer them, it would impair their ability to learn as much as they might from me.”

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