Importance of the Right Verdict – Legal Decisions

Most people might see a courthouse building and think, that’s where I mail my traffic-ticket money, that’s where the divorced guy pays down his child-support, or that’s where I vote.   All true.  But incomplete.

A great many of us have been in a courthouse when that building was all that stood between some bad actor getting away with his actions.  People in courtrooms include police officers, news reporters, and jurors.  When those people look at a courthouse, what do they think of?

Many people in these circumstances probably think the courthouse building stands for justice.  What motivates such a thought?  Possibly a verdict that was not only the right one, but also one that – they know with a gut feeling – had been made for the right reason.

A verdict that is made for the right reason is special.  It stands for something beyond itself.  It means something.  It is a meaningful verdict.

We all know of a wrong verdict that was reached for the wrong reason, as when an innocent African American defendant is convicted because of his skin color. 

We also know of right verdicts reached for the wrong reason, as in a verdict based entirely on sympathy in a personal injury case – the verdict may have been right but it cannot be based on sympathy.

What is it that makes each of these verdicts less meaningful?  Each lacks meaning because the verdict was not based in law.  The verdicts, right or wrong, were based on factors that the law tells us we can’t consider – race, or sympathy.

Experienced trial attorney Moe Levine defines a meaningful verdict another way, appealing to the notion of the whole community and that which can be acceptable to it:

“I struggled with this for many years, and finally I decided, and have applied this decision to many case, that a meaningful verdict is a verdict in which the juror, when he is allowed to talk about the case after he has decided it, can go back home and say to his wife, children, and neighbors, ‘Neighbors, I was just on a case.  These were the facts.  This is the decision I made,’ with the expectation that the decision he rendered upon the facts and arguments that he will present will be acceptable to his community.  That’s a pretty important situation.”

What Levine has in mind is the setting of a standard.  No community comes ready-equipped with a standard for behavior that is suitably caring, suitably responsible. Some communities, it might be said, never achieve one.  In the old American West, it was sometimes a single person – perhaps a marshal – who got that job done.  Today, outside of common sense and morality, it is our laws that act as community guideposts for what is and what is not acceptable behavior.

When an individual or corporation acts to run roughshod over the rights of a community member, a courtroom frequently is the place where jurors, representing the common conscience, bring the matter to a head.  That happens when the following question is asked, answered, and installed as a method to achieve a guiding principle for that community.  In Levine’s words,

“Jurors, what do you wish?  As the voice of the conscience of this community, what do you wish the standard for this community to be?”

Decisions reached in this way are meaningful decisions.

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