The answer to this question is: it depends. In some cases, a judge can overrule the jury verdict and lower money damages, grant a judgment of acquittal, or order a new trial.
In other cases, the jury verdict is final and cannot be overturned by the judge.
The power and role of judges and juries in a court case vary depending on whether it is a criminal or civil case, and whether it is at the trial level or the appellate level.
Understanding the Power and Role of Judges and Juries in a Court Case
Judges’ Powers And Responsibilities
Judges are responsible for overseeing the legal process and ensuring that the law is applied correctly and fairly.
Judges have the authority to:
- Decide on pretrial motions, such as motions to dismiss, suppress evidence, or change venue.
- Rule on objections and evidentiary issues during the trial.
- Instruct the jury on the law and the elements of the case.
- Determine the sentence or remedy in case of a conviction or a verdict for the plaintiff.
- Grant post-trial motions, such as motions for a new trial, judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV), or remittitur/additur.
Jury’s Role In Determining Guilt Or Innocence
Juries are composed of ordinary citizens who are randomly selected and sworn to hear the evidence and render a verdict based on the facts. Juries have the power to:
- Evaluate the credibility and reliability of witnesses and evidence.
- Weigh the arguments and evidence presented by both sides.
- Apply the law as instructed by the judge to the facts of the case.
- Reach a unanimous verdict of guilty or not guilty in criminal cases, or for or against the plaintiff in civil cases.
When a Judge Can Overturn a Jury Verdict?
1. JNOV (Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict)
A JNOV, a law-based judgment, usually surfaces after a jury trial. This situation sees the judge overruling the jury’s decision, substituting it with a new one favoring the initially defeated party.
A JNOV is justifiable only if the judge ascertains that no rational jury could have arrived at such a verdict given the evidence.
For instance, when a party fails to provide evidence for a crucial aspect of their case, yet the jury rules in their favor, the judge has the power to overrule that, asserting that no rational jury would overlook the absence of evidence on that critical point, and then amend the judgment.
JNOVs appear more often in civil cases than criminal ones. In criminal proceedings, the judge rarely overturns an acquittal verdict, as this act infringes upon the defendant’s constitutional rights, including the right to a jury trial and protection from double jeopardy.
Nonetheless, should the jury pronounce the defendant guilty, the judge can permit a plea for acquittal judgment, either before or after the verdict, if the judge concludes that the evidence couldn’t establish the defendant’s guilt beyond any doubt.
2. Limited Understanding of Legal Matters
Sometimes, a judge may overrule a jury verdict because the jury did not understand or follow the law as instructed by the judge.
For example, if the jury awards an excessive or inadequate amount of damages in a civil case, the judge can reduce or increase the amount by granting a motion for remittitur or additur, respectively.
Remittitur means that the judge lowers the number of damages awarded by the jury, while additur means that the judge raises the number of damages awarded by the jury.
Alternatively, the judge can order a new trial on the issue of damages only.
3. Guilty and Not Guilty
In criminal cases, a jury can find a defendant guilty or not guilty of the charges against him or her.
A guilty verdict means that the jury believes that the prosecution has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime.
A not guilty verdict means that the jury has reasonable doubt about the defendant’s guilt, or that the defendant has raised a valid defense, such as self-defense or insanity.
A not guilty verdict does not necessarily mean that the defendant is innocent, but rather that he or she cannot be legally punished for the crime.
4. Biased Jury Decisions
Another reason why a judge may overrule a jury verdict is if there is evidence of bias or misconduct by the jury.
For example, if some jurors were influenced by external factors, such as media coverage, personal relationships, or bribes, that affected their impartiality and fairness.
Or if some jurors ignored or violated the judge’s instructions, such as conducting their own research, discussing the case with others, or lying during jury selection.
In such cases, the judge can declare a mistrial and order a new trial with a different jury.
The Appellate Process and Overruling Jury Decisions
Authority of appeals courts to review jury verdicts and judge’s actions
An appeal is a legal process by which a party who is dissatisfied with the outcome of a trial can ask a higher court to review the case and determine if there were any errors of law or procedure that affected the verdict.
Appeals courts have the authority to:
- Affirm the verdict and judgment of the lower court, meaning that they agree with the decision and uphold it
- Reverse the verdict and judgment of the lower court, meaning that they disagree with the decision and overturn it
- Remand the case to the lower court, meaning that they send the case back for further proceedings, such as a new trial or a new sentencing
- Modify the verdict and judgment of the lower court, meaning that they change some aspects of the decision, such as reducing or increasing the amount of damages or the length of the sentence
Standards for overturning a jury’s decision on appeal
Appeals courts do not reweigh the evidence or reevaluate the credibility of witnesses that were presented at trial.
They defer to the jury’s findings of fact unless they are clearly erroneous or unreasonable.
Appeals courts review the judge’s rulings on legal issues, such as motions, objections, instructions, and post-trial motions, for errors of law.
Errors of law are mistakes in applying or interpreting the law that may have affected the jury’s verdict.
Appeals courts use different standards of review depending on the type and severity of the error.
Some common standards of review are:
- De novo: The appeals court reviews the issue from scratch, without giving any deference to the lower court’s decision. This standard is used for pure questions of law, such as constitutional issues or statutory interpretation.
- Abuse of discretion: The appeals court reviews the issue to determine if the lower court acted arbitrarily, unreasonably, or unfairly in exercising its discretion. This standard is used for issues that involve some degree of judgment or choice by the lower court, such as evidentiary rulings or sentencing decisions.
- Substantial evidence: The appeals court reviews the issue to determine if there is enough evidence in the record to support the jury’s verdict. This standard is used for issues that involve factual determinations by the jury, such as liability or damages.
In summary, a judge can overrule the jury verdict in some cases, but not in others. The power and role of judges and juries in a court case depend on whether it is a criminal or civil case, and whether it is at the trial level or the appellate level.
Judges have the authority to oversee the legal process and ensure that the law is applied correctly and fairly, while juries have the power to evaluate the evidence and render a verdict based on the facts.
Judges can overrule the jury verdict and lower money damages, grant a judgment of acquittal, or order a new trial in limited circumstances, such as when no reasonable jury could have reached the given verdict when the jury did not understand or follow the law, or when there is evidence of bias or misconduct by the jury.
Appeals courts can review the jury verdict and the judge’s actions for errors of law or procedure that affected the verdict, and affirm, reverse, remand, or modify the decision of the lower court using different standards of review.