Supreme Court creates Mississippi Model Jury Instructions Commission

December 30, 2008

The Supreme Court has created the Mississippi Model Jury Instructions Commission. Its purpose is to examine jury instructions used in state courts and recommend plain language instructions which would offer clearer guidance regarding application of the law for the lay persons who serve on juries.

Chief Justice James W. Smith Jr. entered an order today creating the Mississippi Model Jury Instructions Commission.

Chief Justice Smith said revisions are needed “so that the average person can understand.”

Chief Justice Smith said, “This is another step by this court to be progressive and make the necessary changes that will simplify the jury instructions system for the benefit of the public. This total revision is long overdue. There have been minor revisions, but there has never been a complete overhaul since the model jury instructions were put in place in the 1970s.”

Justice George C. Carlson Jr. of Batesville will serve as chair of the 21-member commission. Its members include trial judges, appellate judges, lawyers, law professors and lay persons.

Justice Carlson said, “Although our model civil and criminal jury instructions are periodically updated, this will be the first time in Mississippi that the primary focus of jury instruction revision has been on converting from the legalese contained in jury instructions to language which is completely familiar to our lay citizens who are called for jury service and who, most of the time, have no prior formal training in the law.”

Justice Carlson in April 2008 attended a national conference on the creation of model jury instructions. The conference at Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kan., focused on creating jury instructions which are more easily understandable to lay people while providing accurate and comprehensive statements of the applicable law.

“This concept of plain language jury instructions has worked extremely well in other states,” Justice Carlson said.

“My jury instruction experience through the years as a lawyer, trial judge and appellate judge, has been that lawyers want to draft jury instructions which they think will gain approval from the trial judges, and that the trial judges will approve or disapprove jury instructions based on a belief of whether such action will be affirmed by the reviewing court on appeal,” Justice Carlson said. “However, the focus has not been on the very ones whose understanding of the law is critical to the fair disposition of any case, namely the lay citizens in the jury box. This is not intentional on the part of lawyers and judges. While the lawyers and judges will very often attempt to simplify jury instructions, they are reluctant to stray very far from the boilerplate model jury instructions which have previously gained appellate court approval through court decisions.”

The court order creating the commission says, “Recognizing that clear and understandable jury instructions are essential to the fair and efficient administration of justice and that a thorough review of the instructions used in our courts is needed, the Supreme Court of Mississippi does hereby establish the Mississippi Model Jury Instructions Commission. The Commission is charged to conduct a comprehensive examination of jury instructions now in use and to recommend to the Supreme Court revised, modified and simplified instructions as needed. Emphasis is to be on instructions which give jurors guidance as to the law applicable to the cases before them in clear and concise language understandable to the jurors without legal training. It is expected that as a result of the work of the Commission there will be created a set of improved instructions for use in both civil and criminal litigation in our courts.”

The order creating the commission did not set a time frame for the completion of the study and recommendations. The order says, “The Commission will have continued existence until such time as it reports to the Court that it has completed its duties or until it is dissolved by order of the Court, and members shall serve for indefinite terms.”

Other members of the Commission include: Court of Appeals Judge David M. Ishee, Gulfport; Circuit Judge James T. Kitchens Jr., Columbus; Circuit Judge Clarence E. Morgan III, Kosciusko; Circuit Judge Betty W. Sanders, Greenwood; County Court Judge Michael W. McPhail, Hattiesburg; attorney Ramel L. Cotton, Jackson, representing the Magnolia Bar Association; attorney C. Joy Harkness, Meridian, representing the Mississippi Bar; attorney Lance L. Stevens, Jackson, representing the Mississippi Association for Justice; attorney James R. Moore Jr., Ridgeland, representing the Mississippi Defense Lawyers Association; attorney James E. Lappan of the Mississippi Office of Capital Defense Counsel, Jackson, representing the Mississippi Public Defenders Association; Assistant District Attorney Archibald W. Bullard, Corinth, representing the Mississippi Prosecutors Association; Mississippi Judicial College Executive Director Cynthia D. Davis, Oxford; Mississippi Judicial College Staff Attorney Carole E. Murphey, Batesville; professor emeritus Guthrie T. Abbott, Oxford, representing the University of Mississippi School of Law; attorney Forrest W. Stringfellow, Jackson, representing the Mississippi College School of Law; Libby Riley, Meridian, representing the Governor; Pearl Police Department Chief of Detectives Lt. William A. “Butch” Townsend, representing the Lieutenant Governor; businessman Jimmy Murphy, Booneville, representing the Speaker of the House; and at-large members attorney Merrida P. Coxwell Jr., Jackson; and attorney Philip W. Gaines, Jackson.

Justice Carlson said, “I am proud to be a part of this blue-ribbon commission made up of outstanding and experienced members of the legal profession, as well as lay persons who will be a very important part of this entire process.”