Jury Prayer Case - Cases - First Liberty

So Help Me God

In July 2016, a federal grand jury indicted former Congresswoman Corrine Brown on fraud charges; the case proceeded to a jury trial in April 2017. During the jury’s deliberations, the district court removed a juror who stated to other jurors that he had prayed for and believed he received the guidance of the Holy Spirit in considering the case.

Prayer Disqualifies

Upon questioning by the judge, the juror confirmed that he had no “political, religious, or moral beliefs that would preclude [him] from serving as a fair and impartial juror” and that he was not “having any difficulties with any religious or moral beliefs that are, at this point, bearing on or interfering with [his] ability to decide the case on the facts presented and on the law as [the court] gave it to [him] in the instructions.” Yet, the district court found beyond a reasonable doubt that the juror’s statement that he trusted the Holy Spirit categorically disqualified him from serving on the jury!

After the court removed this juror and substituted an alternate, Brown was convicted on all but two charges. She then moved for a new trial, arguing that the juror was improperly removed, and the district court denied the motion. Brown appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, but the three-judge panel affirmed the lower court’s decision.

Pryor Dissents

Judge William Pryor disagreed with the decision.In a scathing dissent, he explained several significant problems with the decision.

He wrote, “First, the district court erroneously equated the divine guidance [the juror] believed he had received with ‘religious beliefs’ that render a person unable to perform the duties of a juror. Second, the district court erroneously conflated divine guidance with reliance on ‘an outside force,’ and the majority necessarily adopts that conflation by affirming the dismissal of [the juror]. Third, the district court jumped to, and the majority now adopts, the unwarranted conclusion that [the juror’s] comments “by definition” meant that he was not basing his decision on the evidence. Of course, if religious jurors may pray for God’s guidance, it follows that they must be entitled to receive God’s guidance, or at least to believe that they have received it. The majority faults [the juror] for believing that he ‘received information from his Father in Heaven.’ But every prayer implies a hope that the prayer be answered.”

First Liberty Legal Action

Attorneys with First Liberty Institute partnered with the case lead attorney to petition the Eleventh Circuit to rehear the case en banc. In September of 2020, the court agreed to hear the case en banc and vacated its previous ruling.  In November 2020, First Liberty filed its opening brief, with oral argument taking place in February 2021.

It didn’t take the court long to decide.  On National Day of Prayer, May 6, 2021, the court reversed its earlier decision!

Chief Judge William Pryor, writing for the Eleventh Circuit en banc, explained, “Jurors may pray for and believe they have received divine guidance as they determine another person’s innocence or guilt, a profound civic duty but a daunting task to say the least.”

As Former Solicitor General Paul Clement wrote in the brief for Ms. Brown: “A nation that enshrines religious toleration in its founding document and invokes the religious beliefs of its citizenry to reinforce their public oaths cannot dismiss jurors based on the way they express their religious convictions.”

“We are grateful that the court reaffirmed the strong standard required to dismiss a deliberating juror,” said Lea Patterson, Counsel for First Liberty. “No American should be disqualified from fulfilling their civic duty as jurors simply because they believe that God answers prayer.”

News Release
For Immediate Release: 5.6.21
Contact: Lacey McNiel, media@firstliberty.org
Direct: 972-941-4453

Eleventh Circuit Reverses Decision Where Court Dismissed Juror Because He Sought Divine Guidance During Trial Deliberations

Atlanta, GA—Today, on the National Day of Prayer, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed and remanded an earlier decision in United States v. Corrine Brown, a case in which attorneys with First Liberty Institute, Kirkland & Ellis LLP, and Kent & McFarland contended that a juror was impermissibly dismissed during deliberation for seeking guidance through prayer and believing his prayers were answered.

Chief Judge William Pryor, writing for the Eleventh Circuit en banc, explained, “Jurors may pray for and believe they have received divine guidance as they determine another person’s innocence or guilt, a profound civic duty but a daunting task to say the least.”

As Former Solicitor General Paul Clement wrote in the brief for Ms. Brown: “A nation that enshrines religious toleration in its founding document and invokes the religious beliefs of its citizenry to reinforce their public oaths cannot dismiss jurors based on the way they express their religious convictions.”

“We are grateful that the court reaffirmed the strong standard required to dismiss a deliberating juror,” said Lea Patterson, Counsel for First Liberty. “No American should be disqualified from fulfilling their civic duty as jurors simply because they believe that God answers prayer.”

In July 2016, a federal grand jury indicted former Congresswoman Corrine Brown on fraud charges; the case proceeded to a jury trial in April 2017.  During the jury’s deliberations, the district court removed a juror who stated to other jurors that he had prayed for and believed he received the guidance of the Holy Spirit in considering the case. The judge questioned the juror, who confirmed that he had no “political, religious, or moral beliefs that would preclude [him] from serving as a fair and impartial juror” and that he was not “having any difficulties with any religious or moral beliefs that are, at this point, bearing on or interfering with [his] ability to decide the case on the facts presented and on the law as [the court] gave it to [him] in the instructions.”

Despite the juror’s repeated assurances that he was basing his opinion about the case on the evidence, the trial judge determined that the juror had illegally “received guidance” from outside the trial because the juror was relying on prayer to guide his decision.  The Eleventh Circuit en banc found that this decision did not follow the strict standard necessary to dismiss a deliberating juror: “Corrine Brown was entitled to the unanimous verdict of a jury of ordinary citizens. The removal of Juror No. 13—a juror who listened for God’s guidance as he sat in judgment of Brown and deliberated over the evidence against her—deprived her of one.”

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About First Liberty Institute

First Liberty Institute is a non-profit public interest law firm and the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to defending religious freedom for all Americans.

To arrange an interview, contact Lacey McNiel at media@firstliberty.org or by calling 972-941-4453.

 


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