(May 8, 2009) The Wisconsin Supreme Court held that it is a reversible error for the mother of the presiding judge to sit on the jury in a criminal trial.
The appeal stemmed from a criminal case in which the judge found his mother in the jury pool. During jury selection, she insisted she would be an impartial juror, but defense counsel moved for her dismissal. While the trial judge indicated he was uneasy at letting his mother serve, he did not see any legal basis to strike her from the jury and denied the motion.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court said that while it usually defers to trial court decisions regarding juror bias, it could not do so in the instant case for two reasons. First, the court found such deference would be “almost ludicrous” with respect to a trial judge's determination that an immediate family member is impartial. It said that a presiding judge's mother serving as a juror is “so fraught with the possibility of bias that we must find objective bias regardless of the particular juror's assurances of impartiality.” The court said a judge's immediate family member's presence could influence the actions of jury, counsel, and court. Second, the court observed that a trial judge should dismiss a juror whose presence may create bias or the appearance of bias, in order to conserve judicial time and resources in the long run. The court reversed and remanded the case for a new trial. (State v. Tody, No. 2007AP400-CR (Wis. Apr. 30, 2009), available at http://www.wicourts.gov/sc/opinion/DisplayDocument.pdf?content=pdf&s