State v. Ragland

Supreme Court of New Jersey, 1986.

105 N.J. 189, 519 A.2d 1361.


Facts: Ragland was convicted of several offenses.  He appealed on the basis that the use of the phrase “must find him guilty” in the jury instructions inappropriately precluded the jury from its power of nullification, and that the jury’s power of nullification was an essential aspect of his constitutional right to a jury trial.


Issue: Must a jury be informed of its nullification power in order for a verdict it returns to be valid?


Rule: There is no rule, which is why the court must make its decision on the basis of policy.


Analysis: The court makes clear its view that jury nullification is undesirable but unavoidable.  It says that the jury should only be informed of its nullification power if such information would have a positive result in terms of policy.  The court reasons that “advertising” jury nullification will result in confusion, arbitrariness, and a slippery slope of consequences involving the way attorneys and judges can and should address the jury at trial.


Conclusion: Juries ought not to be advised of their nullification power.  The verdict was reversed on other grounds and a new trial was ordered.


Notes and Questions


1.     Wiseman seems to base his reasoning on a different idea about juries than most people have.  He believes that the primary purpose of the jury is “to prevent oppression by the Government”.  In a way, Wiseman and Wilentz are really talking about two totally different things.  Wilentz says that it’s primarily not appropriate for the jury to overrule the wisdom of the legislature, while Wiseman says it’s important for the jury to act to control a potentially corrupt judiciary as well as the legislature.  Wiseman focuses on the effects of jury nullification on particular unfair cases, whereas Wilentz talks about juries nullifying whole statutes.

2.     I think the juries were right to acquit, but it does not prove that jury nullification should be encouraged.  Cabranes points out that it can cut both ways.

3.     I would guess there is some rule that says the judge cannot lie.  Would the case be overturned on appeal if the judge said they did not have the power to nullify?  Would the case be overturned on appeal if the judge declined to answer the question?  If the answer is yes to both questions, the judge seemingly must say yes.

4.     What would have been the result of this initiative in Oregon?  What about in other jurisdictions?

5.     This goes to show that there are certainly non-evidentiary and even non-objective factors that go into a jury’s decisions.

6.     I think Leipold argues effectively against Butler’s proposal, but I don’t think Leipold adequately disposes of the possibility of a jury making decisions based on cost-benefit calculations.  Let’s assume the jury can get all the information that Leipold mentioned is important in his “technical argument”.  He gives as his reductio ad absurdum the case of the wife-beater being acquitted by a jury.  But his representation of the jury’s decision making process is just a generic picture of nullification rather than a picture of cost-benefit analysis.  It just shows the jury using arbitrary power rather than weighing the costs and benefits of convicting the wife-beater.  I think the biggest weakness of Butler’s argument is that it suggests that either that there are different rules of morality for African-Americans or that it is right for every minority group to act to protect its interests against the majority without regard to the law and without regard to the interests of other groups.


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