483 U. S. 107
June 22, 1987
Government gives funds to local electric company. Electric company wants access roads built. Two guys named Conover and Tanner finagle contract to build access road. Sounds good, right? The government didn’t think so, and accused Conover and Tanner of defrauding them. An initial trial resulted in a hung jury, and the second trial’s jury convicted them. Later, jurors came forward with testimony that several jurors not only drank to excess, but also used marijuana and cocaine. Tanner and Conover accordingly sought to have the jury’s guilty verdict thrown out.
The Court ruled 5-4 that there could not even be an evidentiary hearing on the matter. O’Connor elucidated the rule that a jury verdict could not be questioned on the basis of juror testimony, unless it had to do with outside influence such as bribery. This rule, she said, was necessary to keep the jury system from effective destruction through unending post-conviction challenges to its verdicts. O’Connor further found this classic rule to be in harmony with the most recent version of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure based on a reading of legislative history. The majority concluded by listing other ways jury behavior can be policed during a trial.
Marshall, joined by Brennan, Blackmun, and Stevens, dissented. Simply put, he felt all defendants had a right to a competent jury, and that Tanner’s jury was plainly incompetent. He found the legislative history of the Federal Rules unconvincing, and also expressed his view that drugs were essentially ‘outside’ forces on deliberation, similar to bribery. Finally, Marshall argued that safeguards during the trial stage on jury competence were inadequate in situations like Tanner’s.
On one crucial point though, O’Connor’s opinion was unanimous. Tanner argued that they had in no way defrauded the US government – at worst, they had only defrauded the electric company. The government made the astonishing claim that it was defrauded any time a recipient of its funds is defrauded. Thankfully, the Court saw that this was an unfathomably broad reading of the statute, and not subject to any useful limiting principle. The lower court was instructed to find Tanner guilty only if the evidence showed he conspired to cause the electric company to make misrepresentations to the government.
American citizens really dodged a bullet on the defrauding issue. As to the jury issue, there really doesn’t seem to be any good answer. The jury system has some massive flaws, but it’s frankly hard to think of a decent way to guard against them. Regardless, I have little sympathy for the dissenters – on this case, they were hoisted by their own petard. Constitutional law is packed to the brim with overbearing rules designed to protect defendants. The stringent rule against questioning jury verdicts is one of them. If you’re going to insist on all these silly prophylactic rules, it’s hardly fair to turn around and start complaining in the very rare instances where one of these rules works to the disadvantage of a defendant.