Brennan Linsley / Reuters

More than 2.2 million car crashes occurred at U.S. intersections in 2009. But only one of them led to a U.S. Supreme Court case on the federal judiciary’s power over juries.

In a 6-2 decision Thursday, the Court ruled federal district courts have the power to recall juries into service after they are discharged—but only within certain limits.

“District courts should exercise this power cautiously and courts of appeals should review its invocation carefully,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the majority. “That was done here.”

The case, Dietz v. Bouldin, began at a nondescript intersection in Bozeman, Montana. Hillary Bouldin ran a red light on August 9, 2009, and struck Rocky Dietz’s car, injuring Dietz’s lower back. He sued Bouldin in federal court seeking at least $10,136 for past medical costs, plus additional damages for future expenses.

The trial was unremarkable. Since Dietz and Bouldin had agreed on the amount for past medical expenses, the jury’s role was to decide how much more than that would be awarded in damages. During their discussions, jurors sent a note to the judge: “Has the $10,136 medical expenses been paid; and if so, by whom?”

Speaking with both sides’ lawyers, the judge worried that jurors might not know they had to award at least $10,136 in damages. If they awarded less, it would result in a mistrial. His response to the jurors simply said their requested information was not relevant to their verdict.

Deliberations continued, and eventually the jury returned with its verdict: $0 in damages.

The judge thanked them for their service and ordered them “discharged.” He then realized the mistake and summoned the jurors back. Most of them had been mingling outside the courtroom in a public space. One had left the building entirely to get a hotel receipt before returning.

Dietz’s lawyer objected. Once juries are dismissed, they cannot be “un-dismissed.” The proper course of action would be a mistrial.

But the judge did not want to waste more time and money with a whole new trial, he said. After the jury reconvened, he asked them collectively if they had discussed the case with anyone else after leaving. When they said no, he informed them of the error—for which he accepted blame—and told them to return to their deliberations. They awarded $15,000 in damages the next day.

Dietz asked the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn the verdict, but the court instead affirmed the judge’s actions. By ruling that federal district courts could recall discharged juries, the Ninth Circuit deepened a split among the federal appeals courts over the issue. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case on January 19.

Writing for the majority, Sotomayor rejected what she described as the “‘Humpty Dumpty’ theory of the jury,” in which jurors’ neutrality and authority is irrevocably broken once dismissed.

“A discharge order is not a magical invocation,” Sotomayor wrote. “It is an order, like any other order. And, like any order, it can be issued by mistake.”

Avoiding mistrials from simple errors also furthers the judiciary’s interest in speedy and efficient justice, Sotomayor added. “Compared to the alternative of conducting a new trial, recall can save the parties, the court, and society the costly time and litigation expense of conducting a new trial with a new set of jurors,” she wrote.

But the power to recall juries is not without limits, especially with the risk of  potential prejudice, she noted. Among the factors she said lower courts should consider when assessing jury recalls are the length of time jurors were discharged, their possible exposure to Internet coverage, their conversations with non-jurors, and any reaction to their verdict that they witnessed.

The Court also declined to address whether juries could be reconvened in criminal trials, where the risk of double jeopardy and the presumption of innocence may alter the constitutional calculus.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a four-page dissent joined only by Justice Anthony Kennedy. Its shortness reflected its simplicity. Rather than grapple with the myriad and subtle influences that could taint reconvened juries, he argued, the Court should forbid judges from reconvening them at all.

“Granting a new trial may be inconvenient, but at least litigants and the public will be more confident that the verdict was not contaminated by improper influence after the trial has ended,” he wrote. “And under this bright-line rule, district courts would take greater care in discharging the jury.”

He also predicted the ruling’s vague categories would lead to confusion among the district courts. “And when the Courts of Appeals inevitably fail to agree on what constitutes prejudice, we will be called on again to sort it out,” Thomas added.

For Sotomayor and the rest of the majority, the benefits of a limited jury-recall power outweighed the potential increases in workload. “All judges make mistakes,” she wrote. “Even us.”

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