The civil jury trial is uniquely American. Though many countries utilize a jury system for conducting criminal trials, the trial by jury in civil matters is something seen almost exclusively in the United States, and has been a cornerstone of the American judicial system since the Colonial Era. However, many scholars have lamented what they refer to as the “vanishing jury trial,” due to increased use of alternative dispute resolution and settlements to resolve cases without a trial or jury. Now, in addition to pre-trial dispute resolution, a new trend has emerged which threatens to further undermine the American civil jury system as well as the doctrine of qualified immunity.
The Seventh Amendment to the Constitution provides a right to a civil jury trial by one’s peers to every American citizen. Yet, in the District of Connecticut, it has twice occurred that a Rule 59 Motion for a New Trial has been used in an apparent attempt to override a jury verdict in favor of police officer defendants, despite a lack of legal precedent supporting the move. These two cases are Bryant v. Meriden Police Department and Huaman ex rel. J.M. v. Tinsley.
Of these two cases, the Huaman parties have subsequently settled—replacing the jury’s no-liability judgment with an over $300,000 payment to plaintiffs—and the Bryant parties have given oral arguments in front of the Second Circuit. If the Second Circuit were to affirm Bryant, and the manner in which Rule 59 was utilized is given precedential effect, there may be severe repercussions. First, qualified immunity would be weakened due to the removal of the reasonableness inquiry from the hands of the jury. Additionally, the civil jury trial itself would only be rendered further obsolete, as the verdicts that juries hand down would become significantly more vulnerable to being taken away by a judge who disagrees with the result. Either of these outcomes would undeniably alter the U.S. legal landscape, and neither would be an alteration for the better.
Bosse, Kimberly, "Playing by The Rules (Or Not): How the Court’s Misuse of Rule 59 Threatens to Undermine Qualified Immunity and the Civil Jury Trial" (2018). Connecticut Law Review. 385.