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If a jury disagrees with a law, it's allowed to exercise a right known as jury nullification.

However, what about civil cases (e.g., in a Superior Court in California) that are presided by a judge alone, with neither plaintiff nor defendant selecting a jury trial?

Is the judge allowed to nullify laws?

For example, I recall that in unlawful detainer cases in California that arise out of defects in the premises, if a jury gives a verdict that defects are substantiated, the landlord basically loses the whole case entirely (I think it has to do with defendants being judgement-proof and simply not paying the rent), even though the defects might be rather minor compared to the overall issues at stake. However, the jury is specifically prohibited from being instructed about such stakes! However, knowing what he knows, can the judge still be objective, or would he have to recuse himself out of fear of showing prejudice? Can he require the litigants to have a proper jury, including the associated fees, even though the case is supposedly eligible for a judge-only trial, too? How would it affect a potential appeal?

Likewise, California statutes require that a 3-day notice preceding the UD has to specify the exact amount of rent (e.g., cannot include random fees). Is the judge allowed to show prejudice against mistakes in said amount?

  • Looks like you start asking about judicial nullification but then drift into judicial prejudice. Maybe break the latter off into a separate question? – feetwet Jun 1 '15 at 16:49
  • @feetwet, I think prejudice in this instance is part of nullification, e.g. because the law explicitly says that the amount has to be exact etc. – cnst Jun 1 '15 at 17:41
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The concept of "jury nullification" is not really applicable to civil litigation, whether it's a bench or a jury trial.

The short answer is: generally in the United States, civil judges, and civil juries, have to follow the law. If the jury doesn't follow the law, the judge can entertain and grant a JNOV motion on the basis that no reasonable jury could have reached the verdict in question. If the judge doesn't follow the law, the aggrieved party can appeal the judgment as an abuse of discretion or on similar grounds.

Jury nullification occurs when a criminal jury returns a verdict of "not guilty" although they feel the defendant was in fact guilty under the law. That is the only circumstance where no legal review can reverse the verdict. Civil "jury nullification" is not a particularly meaningful concept.

4

Here's one answer:

The federal system values judicial independence very highly and takes few steps to deter a judge from challenging existing law. Obviously, a judge who paid no mind to prior case law would see her decisions regularly reversed on appeal. But she can be removed from the bench only through the impeachment process, and lesser judicial-misconduct proceedings are largely toothless. No federal judge has ever been disciplined in either manner for failure to apply [binding law].

So yes, United States judges can ignore the law in their courts and the worst that happens in practice is that their rulings are overturned on appeal.

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