Appellate Courts and Civil Juries
40 Pages Posted: 23 Nov 2020 Last revised: 22 Mar 2021
Date Written: September 25, 2020
In federal civil litigation, decisionmaking power is shared by juries, trial courts, and appellate courts. This Article examines an unresolved tension in the different doctrines that allocate authority among these institutions, one that has led to confusion surrounding the relationship between appellate courts and civil juries. At base, the current uncertainty stems from a longstanding lack of clarity regarding the distinction between matters of law and matters of fact. The high-stakes Oracle-Google litigation--which is now before the Supreme Court--exemplifies this. In that case, the Federal Circuit reasoned that an appellate court may assert de novo review over a jury's verdict simply by characterizing a particular issue as legal rather than factual. But this approach misperceives the approach demanded by Rule 50 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which permits judicial override of a jury's verdict only when "a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis" to reach such a verdict.
Rule 50's reasonable-jury standard does not permit de novo review of a jury's verdict on a particular issue. Rather, it requires deference to the jury's conclusion on that issue unless the reviewing court can explain why principles of substantive law or other aspects of the trial record render that verdict unreasonable. This deferential standard of review faithfully implements the text and structure of the Federal Rules and respects the jury's role in our federal system. Yet, it also preserves appellate courts' ability to provide meaningful clarification that will guide future decisionmakers.
Keywords: appellate courts, appellate review, juries, verdicts, civil procedure, Rule 50, Seventh Amendment, standards of review
JEL Classification: K00, K10, K40, K41
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation