JUDGE, JURY … AND INTERROGATOR

February 14, 2012 § 2 Comments

Lawyers frequently refer to the fact that chancellors are “judge and jury” because the chancellor makes findings of fact as well as conclusions of law in the case.

But there’s another legitimate role of the chancellor … developer of the facts. It’s a duty of chancellors long recognized in our jurisprudence, as this passage from the venerable case of Moore v. Sykes’ Estate, 167 Miss. 212, 219-221, 149 So. 789, 791 (1933), illustrates:

“Ever since our chancery court system has been in operation in this state, going back to the earlier days of our judicial history, it has been an established and well-recognized part of that system that one of the important obligations of the chancellor is to see that causes are fully and definitely developed on the facts, and that so far as practicable every issue on the merits shall be covered in testimony, if available, rather than that results may be labored out by inferences, or decisions reached for want of testimony when the testimony at hand discloses that other and pertinent testimony can be had, and which when had will furnish a firmer path upon which to travel towards the justice of the case in hand. The power and obligation reaches back into the ancient days of chancery when the chancellor called the parties before him and conducted a thorough and searching examination of the parties and the available witnesses and decreed accordingly. And, while now this duty of calling the witnesses and the conduct of their examination is placed in the first instance and generally throughout on counsel, the power and duty of the chancellor in that respect is not thereby abrogated; and while to be exercised only in cases in which it is fairly clear that the duty of the chancellor to intervene has arrived and is present, when that situation does arise and is perceived to be present, the duty must be exercised and is as obligatory as any other responsible duty which the constitution of the court imposes on the chancellor.”

And where the attorneys have failed to develop the proof necessary, the chancellor may reopen the proof, or leave the record open to acquire the necessary proof, so as to be able to adjudicate the case. In In re Prine’s Estate, 208 So.2d 187, 192-93 (Miss. 1968), the court said:

“More than a half century ago our Supreme Court in Beard v. Green, 51 Miss. (856) 859, expressly pronounced upon the obligation and responsibility mentioned, and in that case said: ‘The power of the chancery court to remand a cause for further proof at any time before final decree, and in some cases after it, either with or without the consent of parties, is one of the marked characteristics distinguishing it from a court of law, and is one of its most salutary and beneficent powers. It should always be exercised where it is necessary to the ascertainment of the true merits of the controversy.’ And the court went on to say that it was immaterial as to how the necessity of the action by the court arose, whether through inattention or misapprehension or misconception by counsel or litigants, and that none of these or the like should be allowed to prevent the doing of justice. And the duty of the chancellor in this respect was again declared in a later case, McAllister v. Richardson, 103 Miss. (418), 433, 60 So. 570, 572, wherein it was pointed out that the duty, and this of course carries the power, is not only to remand to rules, but includes the obligation on the part of the chancellor during the hearing to see ‘that all proper testimony was introduced to enable him to render a decision giving exact justice between the contending parties’-to conduct the hearing in such manner ‘that all testimony which will throw light upon the matters in controversy is introduced,‘ and that he is within his privileges and duties in aiding to bring out further competent and relevant evidence during the examination of the witnesses who are produced.”

The ancient practice is incorporated in MRE 614, which expressly provides that “The court may, on its own motion or at the suggestion of a party, call witnesses, and all parties are entitled to cross-examine witnesses thus called.”  The rule goes on to say that the court may itself interrogate any witness called by anyone, and objections to the court calling or interrogating a witness in chancery should be contemporaneous.

Imagine a case where only one side puts on proof of the Albright factors in a child custody case with horrific allegations. The neglectful side is represented by counsel who is not quite up to the task. Should the chancellor allow the best interest of a child to be determined on lopsided proof? Or should she let the better-represented side play “gotcha!”? Neither. As Albright itself reiterates, the polestar consideration is the best interest of the child. In her role as the child’s superior guardian (Carpenter v. Berry, 58 So.3d 1158, 1163 (Miss. 2011)), the chancellor has the duty to make sure that there is adequate proof in the record before making a decision. Rule 614 and the judge’s authority to reopen or leave the record open are the tools that the judge can put to good use.

It goes without saying that this considerable power should be exercised with discretion. There is the well-worn tale of the chancellor who interrupted counsel’s questioning of a witness and proceeded into his own lengthy cross examination. The attorney asked to approach the bench and told the judge, “Your honor, I don’t mind you questioning my witness, but please don’t lose the case for me.” So, a judge can be too fond of the sound of his own voice. The balance, perhaps, was laid out best by the Mississippi Supreme Court in Bumpus v. State, 166 Miss. 267, 144 So. 897 (1932): “It is true that ‘an overspeaking judge is no well-tuned cymbal,’ but, in language somewhat similar to that of Mr. Justice McReynolds, in Berger v. U. S., 255 U. S. 43, 41 S. Ct. 230, 65 L. Ed. 489, neither is an aphonic dummy a becoming receptacle for judicial power.”

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