Judicial Impartiality Can Be Difficult to Maintain

By Karen Federman Henry

Many litigators have experienced those situations where a judge becomes interested in the case and asks a witness a follow-up question.  It goes with the territory, right?  So what about when a judge reopens your case instead of outright dismissing it?  The Court of Special Appeals has an answer—the judge needs to be cautious when doing so or risk crossing the line of impartiality.  See Payton v. State, CSA No. 2115, Sept. Term, 2016 (February 1, 2018).

The Circuit Court for Baltimore City held a four-day jury trial involving charges against Brandon Payton for murder and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony.  The evidence introduced by the State included fingerprint evidence, which was examined and explained by two expert witnesses.  Not surprisingly, at the close of the State’s case, the defense made a motion for judgment of acquittal—this is not an unusual step, but part of the typical process of a trial.  The court, however, evidently wanted more evidence to explain the fingerprint evidence.

Rather than rule on the motion outright (agree with the defense and dismiss or disagree and continue with the trial), the court admonished the State for failing to put the defendant at the scene of the crime.  The court then invited the State to ask to reopen its case to present the missing evidence and, in doing so, the judge gave the State a roadmap for avoiding dismissal.  It is unclear from the dialogue between the judge and the Assistant State’s Attorney whether the court was trying to help the State or complaining about the performance of the attorney—either scenario is possible (and many newer attorneys appreciate the court’s assistance).

The Court of Special Appeals toed a fine line in remanding the case for a new trial.  While cautioning the trial court to maintain impartiality, the appellate court acknowledged that the result would have been different if the State had initiated the request to reopen its case.  In fact, the Court also recognized that the judge would not abuse his discretion when sua sponte reopening the evidentiary portion of a suppression hearing to admit evidence that the State failed to produce during its case in chief.

Ultimately, the Court identified the key factors for determining whether a court has abused its discretion in reopening a case—the significance of the additional evidence; whether it is controversial; and whether the jury will be unduly influenced by it.  While discouraging a trial court from taking on the role of the prosecutor, the Court noted that it was not issuing a blanket prohibition, but reminding judges to be cautious when reopening a case for additional evidence.

We all can agree that an impartial judge is crucial to the integrity of the judicial system.  The question becomes how to draw the line between a court ensuring that the available evidence makes it into the record and a situation in which the judge oversteps and interferes with an attorney’s trial strategy.  Time will tell whether the Court of Appeals will have a chance to comment on the issue as well or if additional cases find their way to the appellate courts.  For now, practitioners should avoid putting the court in an awkward position by making sure to cover all elements of their case to avoid dismissal or a directed verdict.

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