Court Says Judges Must Talk to Juries When Issuing Instructions

Panel says it’s an important tradition of the American legal system.

Rules, tradition, and talking to juries matter. That’s the gist of what the state Court of Appeals said when it reversed assault and firearms convictions against a northern Michigan man.

The issue was a judge in Mackinac County sent the jury written instructions on the offenses, but never read the instructions out loud. There is no court rule that specifically says jury instructions must be spoken. But, in a divided ruling, two of three judges on the appeals court panel said it’s an important tradition of the American legal system that ensures juries know and understand what they’re supposed to do.

“There are important reasons that in the English and American legal traditions, jury instructions are always spoken,” Appeals Judge Elizabeth Gleicher wrote in the majority opinion.

“Judges instruct juries by speaking to them out loud, reading jury instructions or reciting them from memory. Spoken communication of the final instructions is deeply ingrained in the history of jury trials … Teaching almost always begins as a verbal experience. And historically, judges have taught jurors the law by speaking to them, reading instructions, and by answering their questions aloud.”

The ruling also says the written instructions left out critical elements of the firearms charge that the jury should have been told about. The court ordered a new trial in case.

But there was a dissent. Appeals Judge David Sawyer said, in this case, the court had taken following tradition too far:

“While this may be the customary, and perhaps even the preferred, practice, that does not mean that it is the required practice.”