Criminal Law - Jury Nullification - Federal Court Dismisses Juror Refusing to Apply Law as Instructed

Article excerpt


Recent Supreme Court decisions have emphasized the significance of originalism in contemporary Sixth Amendment jurisprudence. (1) For issue after issue--from evidence to verdicts to sentencing (2)--the Court has analyzed Founding-era history to determine the original meaning of the constitutional texts (3) that protect the right to criminal trial by jury. (4) Yet, notwithstanding its ubiquity in criminal jury law, originalism has failed to penetrate one realm that the Framers considered among the most important--jury nullification. (5)

Last year, in United States v. Luisi, (6) a federal district court dismissed a juror who refused to apply the law as instructed by the court. Endeavoring to justify the modern bar against nullification, the court grounded its dismissal in the nineteenth-century delegitimation of the once-accepted practice. (7) Although it accurately reflected the current law, the court's failure to recognize how the Framers embraced nullification as a right inherent to jury trial masked a contradiction in contemporary jurisprudence. On the one hand, the Supreme Court claims to mandate Founding-era interpretations of rights in criminal trials; on the other hand, courts refuse to authorize what was then among the most consequential rights of all. The district court's descriptive and normative reasoning failed to bridge this gap, for it privileged the century and methods of change that are least persuasive in constitutional adjudication. The Supreme Court should resolve the inconsistency it has created either by relegitimating nullification in accord with its newfound originalism or by explaining why nullification doctrine should be unaligned with its broader Sixth Amendment jurisprudence.

In 2002, a federal jury in the District of Massachusetts convicted Robert Luisi of conspiracy to possess and possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, but the First Circuit found that the judge's instructions to the jury were erroneous, vacated Luisi's conviction, and remanded his case to the district court. (8) In 2008, after a new trial presided over by Judge Young, Luisi's case was again sent to the jury. (9) Almost immediately, juror Thomas Eddlem (10) objected to the relevant drug laws, denying that the Constitution empowered Congress to ban drug possession. (11) Judge Young informed the jurors that the laws at issue were constitutional and that the jurors were not to determine questions of law, yet Eddlem maintained that the trial, charges, and jurisdiction were invalid. (12) Finding that Eddlem was engaging in juror nullification by refusing to apply the law as instructed, Judge Young removed him from the jury, and the reconstituted jury convicted Luisi of the charged offenses. (13) Luisi decided not to appeal. (14)

Judge Young justified his decision to dismiss Eddlem in a memorandum that dissected the history of jury nullification. According to Judge Young, the jury's right to interpret the law was "a matter of debate in the early Republic" because, as the legal profession was still in its nascent stage, judges lacked formal training enabling them to interpret laws better than jurors could; thus, there was little reason to divest juries of their right to evaluate the law. (15) As the law grew more complex, however, and the judiciary became professionalized in the nineteenth century, commercial interests criticized the power of volatile juries, asserting that allowing jurors to interpret laws undermined the predictable rule of law that was important to American economic growth. (16) Judge Young noted that the judiciary, therefore influenced by these interests, fostered the view that there was "a sharp distinction between law and fact and a correspondingly clear separation between judge and jury," and it made clear that court instructions were mandatory and that juries did not possess the right to determine the law. …