Thursday, May 06, 2021

Blockbuster en banc opinion in U.S. v. Corrine Brown

If I had told you that an African American congresswoman convicted of fraud would obtain en banc review and win in the 11th Circuit by having her conviction vacated, you would tell me that I was crazy and that it was literally a million to one shot.  After all, the 11th Circuit is the most conservative appellate court in the country, it grants en banc review to defendants who lose once every decade (at most), and has never ruled for a defendant in an en banc opinion since I've been covering the court.  (Please correct me if I'm wrong!). But this wasn't any normal issue before the 11th Circuit.  It involved the religious beliefs of a juror who was told by the Holy Spirit to vote not guilty.  The district judge struck that juror.  Brown was convicted and then appealed.  The panel in a 2-1 decision affirmed the conviction (Rosenbaum for the majority and Pryor for the dissent).  The en banc court lined up as you would expect it, with the 7 conservative judges saying you can't strike a juror based on a religious vote, while the 4 moderate judges dissented (Jill Pryor recused and did not participate). 

You can access the 98 pages of opinions here

The lineup:

WILLIAM PRYOR, Chief Judge, delivered the opinion of the Court, in which NEWSOM, BRANCH, GRANT, LUCK, LAGOA, and BRASHER, Circuit Judges, joined.

NEWSOM, Circuit Judge, filed a concurring opinion, in which GRANT, Circuit Judge, joined. 

BRASHER, Circuit Judge, filed a concurring opinion, in which BRANCH, Circuit Judge, joined. 

WILSON, Circuit Judge, filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARTIN, JORDAN, and ROSENBAUM, Circuit Judges, joined. 

ROSENBAUM, Circuit Judge, filed a dissenting opinion, in which WILSON and MARTIN, Circuit Judges, joined. 

I come out a little different than both camps.  I'm fine with a juror voting not guilty based on really whatever they want.  In my view, nullification should be permissible.  Jurors should be able to say no to the government at a jury trial for whatever reason they wish.  But I'm not okay with a conviction based on nullification. In other words, if Satan told a juror to convict even though the evidence was not there, that would be a reason to remove the juror.  If the Holy Spirit told a juror to acquit even though there was overwhelming evidence, that should be permitted.  

Let's get to the opinions.

From Pryor's introduction:

This appeal requires us to decide whether a district judge abused his discretion by removing a juror who expressed, after the start of deliberations, that the Holy Spirit told him that the defendant, Corrine Brown, was not guilty on all charges. The juror also repeatedly assured the district judge that he was following the jury instructions and basing his decision on the evidence admitted at trial, and the district judge found him to be sincere and credible. But the district judge concluded that the juror’s statements about receiving divine guidance were categorically disqualifying. Because the record establishes a substantial possibility that the juror was rendering proper jury service, the district judge abused his discretion by dismissing the juror. The removal violated Brown’s right under the Sixth Amendment to a unanimous jury verdict. We vacate Brown’s convictions and sentence and remand for a new trial.


Juror No. 13’s vernacular that the Holy Spirit “told” him Brown was “not guilty on all charges” was no more disqualifying by itself than a secular juror’s statement that his conscience or gut “told” him the same. Of course, neither a religious nor secular juror may convict or acquit a defendant using his internal decision-making processes without regard to the evidence. But Juror No. 13 repeatedly explained that he was, in fact, reviewing and deliberating over the evidence. His statements are not proof that he “abandon[ed] his . . . judgment to what he . . . perceive[d] to be oracular signs.” DeMille, 756 P.2d at 84. And just as a juror may say at the beginning of deliberations that he “thinks” a defendant is “not guilty on all charges,” and perhaps later change his mind, Juror No. 13 could say that the Holy Spirit “told” him the same without violating his oath. There is no evidence that Juror No. 13 believed himself unshakably bound to his initial understanding of the Holy Spirit’s guidance, contrary to the district judge’s assumption that Juror No. 13’s “religious beliefs compelled him to disregard” the jury instructions. Cf. United States v. Salvador, 740 F.2d 752, 754– 55 (9th Cir. 1984) (affirming declaration of mistrial where juror stopped deliberating and refused to move from decision made through religious inspiration). Juror No. 13 may have, for instance, discerned upon further deliberation and review of the evidence, that his preliminary view was mistaken. See Luhrmann, When God Talks Back, at 41 (“These evangelical Christians . . . have to pick out the thoughts that count as God’s and . . . do so in a way that does not violate the realistic demands of the everyday world.”). Let us not forget that “[t]he very object of the jury system is to secure unanimity by a comparison of views, and by arguments among the jurors themselves.” Allen v. United States, 164 U.S. 492, 501 (1896); see also PeƱaRodriguez, 137 S. Ct. at 861 (“[E]xperience shows that fair and impartial verdicts can be reached if the jury . . . undertakes deliberations that are honest, candid, robust, and based on common sense.”). We must guard against the removal of a juror who, in vernacular commonly used by religious and racial minorities, expresses a view among jurors who “may well come to view the ‘holdout’ . . . not only as unreasonable, but as unwilling to follow the court’s instructions on the law.” Thomas, 116 F.3d at 622. And we must take care that judges, “who do not speak the language of ordinary people and may not understand or appreciate the way ordinary people live their lives,” PeƱa-Rodriguez, 137 S. Ct. at 875 (Alito, J., dissenting), do not remove a juror solely because his vernacular led the judge to the same conclusion. See Obergefell, 135 S. Ct. at 2629 (Scalia, J., dissenting) (observing the absence of “a single evangelical Christian” on the “select, patrician, highly unrepresentative panel of nine” that is the Supreme Court).

Newsom is concerned with how the case will be reported:

First, notwithstanding how it will likely be reported, this is not a case about the single statement, “[T]he Holy Spirit told me . . . that Corrine Brown was not guilty on all charges”—it’s a case about the context in which that statement was made and the entire record before us. And the entire record—which the Court meticulously traces over the course of 14 pages—establishes (at the very least) a “substantial possibility” that Juror No. 13 was rendering proper jury service, basing his decision on the evidence. See Maj. Op. at 5–18. Second, and again notwithstanding how it will likely be reported, this is not a case about religious jurors—it’s a case about all jurors. It would come out exactly the same way if Juror No. 13’s comments had touched on some other topic. See, e.g., United States v. Thomas, 116 F.3d 606, 611, 623–24 (2d Cir. 1997) (Cabranes, J.) (reversing a district court’s dismissal of a juror who reportedly had favored acquittal on the ground that “the defendants were his ‘people’” but who was also said to be discussing and evaluating the evidence).

Brasher says there should have been no inquiry at all here:

I agree with the way the Court applies our precedents to Juror 13’s testimony about why he preliminarily voted to acquit the defendant. But I write separately to explain that, in my view, this record should not have been created. There was no cause for Juror 13 to testify at an evidentiary hearing about his religious convictions, his view of the evidence, or his understanding of a juror’s role. The trial judge should not have inquired into Juror 13’s thoughts in the first place. A juror’s initial view of the case is not what matters. 

Wilson dissents:

On the majority’s reading of a cold transcript, there was a substantial possibility that Juror No. 13 was basing his decision solely on the evidence and the law. The district court—able to hear live testimony and observe the juror’s tone, inflection, and demeanor—came to the contrary conclusion. Because the district court was “uniquely situated” to make this determination, I would not supplant its judgment with my own. See United States v. Abbell, 271 F.3d 1286, 1303 (11th Cir. 2001) (per curiam); United States v. Godwin, 765 F.3d 1306, 1316 (11th Cir. 2014). District judges walk a tightrope when deciding whether to remove a juror mid-deliberations. A misstep in one direction—improperly removing a holdout juror—imperils the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a unanimous jury verdict. A misstep in the opposite direction—allowing a juror to vote without regard to the merits of the case—undermines each party’s right to a verdict based on the evidence and threatens the rule of law. See Robinson v. Polk, 444 F.3d 225, 227 (4th Cir. 2006) (mem.) (Wilkinson, J., concurring in the denial of rehearing en banc) (“Juries have legitimacy in a democracy because, despite the variety of jurors’ beliefs, they are united in the common endeavor of legal judgment. Any contrary perception threatens the most basic premise of the rule of law.”). 

And Rosenbaum's additional dissent:

Every judge of this Court agrees on this much: the same rule governs dismissal of both the juror who says his religious authority told him the defendant is not guilty on all charges and the one who says his religious authority told him the defendant is guilty on all charges. So let’s be clear about what we’re really doing today: we are holding that a district judge is powerless to dismiss a juror who, on a record like this one, says the Holy Spirit told him the defendant is guilty on all charges and he trusts the Holy Spirit—even though the judge finds after investigation that the juror is not capable of basing his guilty verdict on the evidence but instead will base his verdict on what he perceives to be a divine revelation.2 Just think about that. We are prohibiting district judges, on records like this one, from dismissing jurors they find beyond a reasonable doubt will return a guilty verdict that is not based on the evidence. Why bother with the trial? Yet while the Majority Opinion guarantees this result, it invokes the grandeur of the right to a jury trial, ironically dedicating an entire section to how its decision protects the rights of defendants to unanimous jury verdicts. See Maj. Op. at Section III.A. But a unanimous jury’s guilty verdict is worth less than nothing to a convicted defendant if the jurors who returned the verdict did not base it on the evidence. And even if only a single juror voted guilty because he believed his religious authority instructed him to do so, without regard to the evidence, the guilty verdict of the jury he sat on is not the unanimous verdict our Founders and the Constitution contemplated; in that case, at best, only eleven jurors, not twelve, based their verdict on the evidence presented at trial. See Ramos v. Louisiana, 140 S. Ct. 1390, 1395 (2020) (“A verdict, taken from eleven, [is] no verdict at all.”) (internal quotation marks omitted). So though the Majority Opinion’s take on the Sixth Amendment right to a unanimous jury verdict may leave a reader with the impression that our decision today is a soaring eagle, that is but an illusion. Today’s decision is in fact a skulking serpent: it dooms the Sixth Amendment right to a unanimous jury verdict in at least some critical circumstances—namely, when a jury returns a guilty verdict not unanimously based on the evidence.

FN2 To put it in even starker terms, at oral argument, Judge Jordan asked Brown’s counsel whether the rule the Majority Opinion adopts today would also prevent the district judge from dismissing a juror who, on a record like this one, says that Satan told him the defendant is guilty on all charges and he trusts Satan—even if the judge finds after investigation that the juror is not capable of basing his guilty verdict on the evidence but instead will base it on what he thinks is a Satanic revelation. Brown’s counsel conceded the rule would preclude the juror’s dismissal. And not a single judge of this Court disagrees; the same rule must govern whether the juror says he’s told by the Holy Spirit or by Satan and whether he says he’s told the defendant is not guilty or guilty on all charges.



Anonymous said...

Hearing voices is severe mental illness. Severe mental illness should be grounds for removing a juror.

Anonymous said...

You mixed up Pryor and Rosenbaum in your introduction, Pryor wrote the majority and Rosenbaum the dissent.
I'm not so sure it's an "expected" result when the racist, biased, Fed-society, unqualified reactionaries throw out the conviction of a left-wing African American Congresswoman.

Anonymous said...

@9:09 "Expected" = anticipated. This is the result people anticipated, regardless how you spin it.

The Holy Spirit said...

You ain’t seen nothing yet. I’m working my magic on the 11th. When I am done they will be more liberal than the 9th (which I’ve been working my magic on since the 1980s. But with the earthquakes and fires and the Kardashians it was time to move South East. I’ve have enough. ).

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

The dissent is right. Following the majority it would be okay for a juror to tell the other jurors Satan told them to convict and no one should be worried about that. It's an extrinsic influence, and it doesn't belong in deliberations no matter what side it's on.

Anonymous said...

Sorry David I was wrong about you mixing up Pryor and Rosenbaum. On re-read I see that you were referring to the original panel. My bad.

Anonymous said...

But, wait for it — Supremes will grant cert and reverse the en banc majority, allowing trial courts broad discretion under these circumstances.

Anonymous said...

How about the 11th disagreeing today with SEVEN (out of seven) other circuits on whether the guidelines are "applicable" to motions for compassionate release...