SJI panel hits 40 year mark

first_imgSJI panel hits 40 year mark SJI panel hits 40 year mark The Supreme Court Committee on Standard Jury Instructions in Civil Cases will celebrate its 40th anniversary early next year, and Chair Sylvia Walbolt said the panel takes pride in its work over the past four decades to advance the administration of justice in Florida by crafting instructions that directly reflect the law in the simplest language possible.From its inception, the committee has been dedicated to increasing the legal accuracy of jury charges and eliminating argumentative language to avoid reversals, while trying to use understandable English to improve juror comprehension.Before the creation of the SJI committee, jury instructions were drafted on a case-by-case basis. The attorneys for each side would submit a version of an instruction they wanted read to the jury and the judge would then choose from those instructions or write an instruction of his own, according to Robert P. Smith, Jr., who served on the committee from 1964 to 1989. That, Smith said, was a time-consuming process which often resulted in instructions which were contradictory, confusing, or did not accurately state the law.“It was typical for a trial judge to spend an hour or more at some point in the trial sitting down with lawyers in his chambers and, as they say, settling the jury charges,” said Smith, who chaired the committee for 11 years.“The court is confident that the forms of instructions recommended by the committee state as accurately as a group of experienced lawyers and judges could state the law of Florida in simple understandable language,” the Supreme Court said in its 1967 opinion approving the first standard jury instructions prepared by the committee for use in civil negligence cases.“We started with that simple negligence instruction. . . and have over the last 40 years continued to submit proposed instructions on a range of different claims,” Walbolt said, including product liability, causation, damages, defamation, insurer’s bad faith, civil theft, and many others. “We basically propose instructions in areas where we believe they would be useful, where there are enough cases — and cases with enough similarities — that you can use standard instructions.”Walbolt said the committee also proposes revisions to the standard instructions as the law changes to conform the instructions to those changes.The court approved standard jury instructions are published by The Florida Bar and may be used by trial judges in charging the jury in every civil case to the extent that the forms are applicable. If the trial judge determines a form of instruction is erroneous or inadequate, the judge may modify the standard instructions as necessary to accurately instruct the jury. The committee also provides notes accompanying the instructions to provide helpful guidance on their use.While the court authorizes the publication and use of the instructions, any litigant can object to the use of any standard instruction, and the trial judge, who is responsible for the initial determination of applicable substantive law, must determine whether the instruction should be used or modified.The SJI committee, whose members are appointed by the court, was activated by Chief Justice B.K. Roberts in 1962 when he named 21 lawyers and judges to be members. T. J. Blackwell of Miami was named the first chair and Chester Bedell of Jacksonville, vice chair. Bedell was chair from 1964 to 1978; Smith, from 1978-1989; Don Partington, from 1990 to 1994; Marjorie Graham, from 1994 to 1998; First District Court of Appeal Judge Peter Webster, from 1999 to 2000; and Walbolt became chair in 2001.Walbolt said that since its inception, the membership of the committee reads like a who’s who of the Florida legal profession. Its members have included James C. Adkins, Harry Lee Anstead, Susan Black, Joe Eaton, Raymond Ehrlich, Patricia Fawsett, Wilkie D. Ferguson, Joseph W. Hatchett, Parker Lee McDonald, Ben Overton, William C. Owen, Jr., Donald H. Partington, Aaron S. Podhurst, Leonard Rivkind, Edward B. Rood, Culver Smith, Hamilton Upchurch, Gerald Wetherington, and John T. Wigginton, among others.“I think you have to be a particularly peculiar type of individual to enjoy this kind of work,” said Judge Peter Webster, who has served on the committee since 1979. “The work involves almost a craftsmanship dealing with words and it has frequently been said of our committee that we grind exceedingly fine and also exceedingly slowly.”Which, Judge Webster said, means the panel spends a lot of time worrying about very subtle distinctions in the use of words and the meaning words are likely to convey to the average juror.Walbolt said the committee also is quite diverse, with a mixture of plaintiff and defense lawyers and trial and appellate judges. The committee also strives for geographic, gender, and racial diversity.“We look for people who have demonstrated an interest in what the law is because this is a committee that has been very faithful in not proposing instructions on what they think the law should be — as we would breakdown very sharply between our plaintiff and our defense lawyers,” Walbolt said. “We really try to be very faithful to submit instructions that reflect the law, not that change the law or say what we think it ought to be.”Walbolt said subcommittees are assigned to research an issue and then present a proposed instruction to the full committee, where members vigorously debate the proposals.“Then it is a free-for-all,” Walbolt said. “We really pick it apart word, by word, by word, to try to make sure it accurately reflects the law and to make it as understandable to a lay jury as possible.”Walbolt said while that sounds easy, it’s not became the SJI panel deals with complex legal concepts and often the instructions implement statutes “that may not have been written with the clarity we would like and yet we feel constrained to follow the statutory language as faithfully as we can.”Smith said it is not unusual for the committee to spend eight hours or more reviewing 100 words.“It is a group editing process with attention to infinitesimal detail,” Smith said.“Sometimes we have very heated discussions over whether a particular word is the most appropriate word or not,” Webster said.Although the committee met more often in its early years, it now generally meets three times a year in two half-day sessions. Currently, it has 12 projects with a subcommittee assigned to each. The materials related to these projects comprise more than 1,200 pages. Subcommittees currently are reviewing instructions on insurer’s bad faith, punitive damages, MI 8 (misrepresentation), and product liability. Among the other subcommittees is one working on contract instructions, a topic with which the committee has struggled with little success since its inception. And another subcommittee is looking into ways to further ensure that the instructions are written in plain English.While serving on the SJI panel is “an enormous amount of work,” the committee members are happy to do it because of the intellectual stimulation involved and the SJI’s commitment to advancing the administration of justice, Walbolt said.She said the committee tries to avoid using legal terms in its instructions, which can be difficult “because we are used to dealing with what some might call legalese and partly because some areas of the law are so complicated it is very difficult to put it into simple terms.”While the standard instructions are a boon to lawyers, Webster said, they may be of even greater benefit to judges.“Notwithstanding the fact lawyers are responsible for proposing jury instructions, the judges are the ones who ultimately have the responsibility for instructing the jury, and this makes their job a great deal easier,” Judge Webster said, adding that without standard instructions, judges would have to review the various proposals the lawyers submit and decide whether to use one side’s or the other’s or, if both are inappropriately slanted, require the judge to prepare an evenhanded one.“Now judges know that if they use the standard instructions there is at least a presumption that they are legally correct,” Webster said.Smith said the work of the committee is truly a collaborative effort and provides sufficient stimulation to keep the members committed to the job at hand. Several members have committed at least 20 years service to the committee. Webster is the most recent addition to that group. Others are William Avera, Tyrie Boyer, Sam Daniels, Michael Kinney, John Prunty, Rood, Smith, and Ford Thompson.Those lengthy terms, however, will now be a thing of the past. Under a policy adopted by the court several years ago, members now can serve only six years in succession.center_img December 15, 2001 Regular Newslast_img